Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Facebook and Google Update: Who's Worse on Privacy?

I of course can't answer this question...as each corporate goliath seems to want to out "anti-privacy" the other. For more of a backdrop on the long lists of privacy outrages perpetrated by these two companies just take a look at any number of my past posts.

For today, I just want to give a quick update on the latest...as Google tries to defend its lifting of peoples internet usage details through its Wi-Fy technology, and Facebook's attempt to improve its grossly confusing and deeply flawed privacy settings (and the lawsuits against it).

As for Facebook, its been sued by a user for allegedly sharing his personal information with advertisers. The complaint alleges that Facebook violated its own privacy policy by disclosing to advertisers a host of information about users who click on ads, including their real names, current cities, schools attended and friend lists.

More specifically, Facebook sends "referrer headers" to advertisers whenever people click on ads. Once marketers have those headers, advertisers "can simply navigate back to the specific user's profile and obtain any personal information the user has made publicly available," Gould alleges in his lawsuit. "And remember," he adds, "the default privacy settings that many users never change make the user's name, photo and more available."

Researchers have recently concluded that many social networking sites "leak" personally identifiable information by including it in the HTTP header information that is automatically sent to ad networks. Harvard professor Ben Edelman said last month that Facebook automatically embeds a profile tag in referring URLs when users view their own profile pages.

Meanwhile, as reported in the National Post, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg continues to stumble and bumble his way around the issue of privacy. Listening to Google's Eric Schmidt and Zuckerberg try and discuss privacy all I keep thinking is "these guys can't be trusted to protect any of our information from anyone!".

According to multiple reports from bloggers, journalists and Twitterers, Facebook's CEO sidestepped questions about facebook privacy rather than giving the conference audience real, thoughtful answers. Here are a few gems:

"Zuckerberg doesn't seem to be helping Facebook with his latest statements concerning privacy....while some of the recent Facebook changes have helped users find and better control their data, Facebook's default settings tend to give users less, rather than more, privacy. When asked about this, he didn't directly address the policy. I took his answer to mean that he thinks the Facebook model works best when people share more. While this is certainly true for Facebook, it ain't necessarily the case for users who want to keep their private data, well, private."

"OK, I'm not sure what button I hit on Facebook's privacy settings, but I just found Mark Zuckerberg in my home going through my photo albums," wrote timcarvell. And Jason tweeted: "Zuckerberg had a Nixon moment tonight. People at conference are talking about the most insane meltdown ever."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said he's surprised that Zuckerberg went to the conference apparently unprepared for predictably tough questions about privacy.

"The issue is one of trust," said Gottheil. "If users' concerns are heightened, and they don't trust that the company understands their concerns, that increases their worries. I think [Zuckerberg] could have handled it better, but he was in a difficult position. First, his company has not done well in the past. Second, he has an embarrassing back story. And third, there's a real trade-off between protecting and monetizing people's information."

Gottheil also said Zuckerberg's presentation came off as though the company is simply waiting for this privacy brouhaha to pass.

"I don't think they've quite come to terms with the need for strong privacy defaults and opt-outs," added Gottheil. "They're hoping this kerfuffle will pass, and they can continue their old pattern of passively encouraging users to keep their privacy settings weak."
Facebook has been knocked about recently because of user concerns that the social networking firm is playing fast and loose with user information. Criticism mounted significantly last month after Facebook unveiled a bevy of tools that allow user information to be shared with other Web sites.

More from Matt Hartley of National Post:

...Mark Zuckerberg is the one with the vision of a world where the Internet is no longer a private and anonymous experience, but rather a social tapestry, where people share their daily digital travels with not only their friends, but the rest of the world.

He’s the one who wanted to make it so that Facebook’s nearly 500 million users would be forced to share more of themselves with the outside world. He’s the one who believes that social norms are changing, that privacy is no longer the default setting coveted by Web users and that “a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

...Never before has the world seen something like Facebook. Not since the birth of the Internet itself has such a disruptive technology changed the way we interact and experience the world around us. Average users and privacy watchdogs have only recently begun to understand the intricacies of the House that Zuck Built.

For many Web users...Facebook is their base of operations on the Web. Facebook is literally the public face they present to the world, it is their social circle and it is a perpetually updated yearbook all rolled into one. It’s the little piece of online real estate they can call home.


Over the past six months, Facebook has unleashed a number of alterations to its privacy controls that not only made more of its users’ personal data public by default, but also swelled the company’s privacy options to 50 buttons, 170 choices and a word count that surpassed even the United States Constitution.

This week, Facebook bowed to public pressure and simplified its privacy settings, creating one single page where users can control whether their information can be seen by their friends, friends of friends or everyone on the Web. Facebook also enabled users to block outside software developers -- the makers of the addictive games and quiz features that have become a staple of the service -- from accessing their personal information.

Facebook’s citizens are angry. Many feel betrayed by a site which started out by offering them a chance to reconnect with long lost friends, organize parties and share photos in what felt like a closed, personal -- even private -- setting.

It’s as though Facebook has broken an unwritten social networking contract with its users...With Facebook, users were willing to enter into the social networking contract offered by the company. In exchange for a personal homepage, a mechanism for connecting with friends, users were willing to let Facebook make money by helping marketers advertise to them based on the information in their profiles.

As Facebook’s audience grew, so did the company’s value to marketers. Based on the information at Facebook’s disposal, advertisers could tailor their marketing to smaller and more targeted groups. Instead of advertising on car Websites outside Facebook, marketers could have their messages appear beside only the Facebook profiles belonging to users who said they liked Honda Civics or Ford Mustangs, thereby maximizing the return on their investment.

The problem is, Facebook kept changing the terms of the user contract. Information that wasn’t meant to be public became widely available. Default settings were changed so that more information could be shared with the wider Web.

Of course, this was all part of Mr. Zuckerberg’s plan to gradually spread Facebook’s tentacles across the Web, through new social features and open graphs. The idea was that Facebook would become the default social standard that would blanket the Web.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision is a world where newspaper Websites can show you stories recommended by your Facebook friends, where retailers can suggest items you might like based on your Facebook interests and where Internet radio stations customize playlists based on your favourite bands and the songs your friends say they like.

Just as newspapers and magazines are only as valuable to advertisers as their reader base, Facebook’s value lies in its collection of members. Mr. Zuckerberg knows this. Without its captive user base sharing their lives with each other and with Facebook, the company wouldn’t be worth an estimated US$15-billion.

Facebook’s challenge lies in finding ways to encourage its users to open up about themselves, to share more information publicly, safe in the knowledge that it’s not just good for Facebook, but it’s good for them too. But after this recent user backlash, questions are now being raised about just how social we’re willing to be online. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post this week, Mr. Zuckerberg admitted that perhaps Facebook moved too quickly in its quest to find new ways to “connect with the social Web and each other.”

Mr. Zuckerberg believes that the social norm has evolved over time and that people are less concerned about privacy and more willing to share today than ever before. Maybe he’s right. How else do we explain our obsession with Facebook, reality television, blogging and services like Twitter?

Of course, the mere existence of Facebook as a central tenet of Western culture will continue to alter our notions of privacy. Things we consider private today may seem inconsequential in five years time.

Lawyers Claim Google Wi-Fi Sniffing ‘Is Not an Accident’

Now to Google and its Wi-Fi networks scandal. Lawyers suing Google are now claiming they have discovered evidence in a patent application that Google deliberately programmed its Street View cars to collect private data from open Wi-Fi networks, despite claims to the contrary.

“At this point, it is our belief that it is not an accident,” said Brooks Cooper, an Oregon attorney suing Google in one of several class actions lawsuits around the country arising from Google’s disclosure that its Street View cars intercepted Wi-Fi traffic around the world. Google has described the sniffing as a coding error.

The evidence is a 2008 Google patent application describing a method to increase the accuracy of location-based services — services that would allow advertisers or others to know almost the exact location of a mobile phone or other computing device. The patent application involves intercepting data and analyzing the timing of transmission as part of the method for pinpointing user locations.

The so-called “776″ patent application, published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in January, describes “one or more of the methods” by which Google collects information for its Street View program.

More from the article: Whether Google willfully sniffed out internet traffic on unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots in dozens of countries is an enormous public relations headache. It also carries huge legal and monetary ramifications in the United States, where the Mountain View, California, internet giant is being sued for privacy violations in multiple federal courthouses.

Among other reasons, Google might escape liability if it accidentally collected and never divulged the data, which includes web pages users visited or pieces of e-mail, video, audio and document files.


Street View is part of Google Maps and Google Earth, and provides panoramic pictures of streets and their surroundings across the globe. The internet giant has maintained the collection of data was inadvertent –- the result of a programming error with code written for an early experimental project that wound up on the Street View code. Google said it didn’t realize it was sniffing packets of data on unsecured Wi-Fi networks in dozens of countries for the last three years, until German privacy authorities began questioning what data Google’s Street View cameras were collecting.

Interestingly enough, Google is attempting to patent the very same Wi-Fi technology it has used to snoop on users in more than 30 countries.

A patent application describes a method devised by Google for gathering and analyzing data sent via wireless access points. The application says the device "may be placed in a vehicle and data may be obtained continuously or at predetermined time increments" and that the speed of the vehicle "may be factored into the analysis,".

Corporate crime (look at BP and Goldman Sachs), and outright deceit, are rapidly becoming the accepted norm in this country. What about Google's previous assurances that its Street View cars catalogued SSID and MAC addresses of wireless access points but didn't examine the actual payloads that traveled between them and users connected to them?

When do we say enough is enough?

Click here to read more.

No comments: