Wednesday, March 14, 2012

5 Ways To Protect Online Privacy

Due to serious time constraints I'm going to refrain from much personal pontificating today and go straight to a great piece by Alternet's David Rosen entitled "Your Are Being Tracked Online: Here Are 5 Ways to Protect Your Privacy". Suffice to say, he lays out a number of the issues I've been covering on this blog, including ways that you can protect your own privacy, but more importantly, as I often argue, what kinds of rules and protections are needed to make this task easier - and give people more power over their data and what's done with it.

I think his general analysis of the President's Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights is on point too...namely, that while conceptually its got a lot of good stuff, there's not a lot of reason to be optimistic that it will end up being very strong, due to deference to the Congress and/or appeasement of big business interests when the time comes to fight for what's most important.

He also delves into the detrimental effects to privacy of media consolidation as well as the shift from paper based media to digitally based....which forces these companies to find new ways (like behavioral tracking) to raise revenue to stay afloat.

With that said, here's a few of the most important passages of his piece in case you don't have the time to read the whole thing:

Overlooked by the media, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning earlier in February over apparent violations of children’s privacy rights involving the operating systems of the Apple iPhone and iPad as well as Google’s Android and their respective apps developers. Its report, "Mobile Apps for Kids," examined 8,000 mobile apps designed for children and found that parents couldn’t safeguard the personal information the app maker collected.

To illustrate how pernicious this practice is, one iPhone app, Path, offered by a Singapore developer, downloaded an iPhone users' entire address book without alerting them. Prodded by a letter from Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said the company will ensure that app developers get permission before downloading a user's address book.

The battle over your personal data is principally about ad spending.
The mass media is witnessing a shift from “broadcast” media like newspapers, radio and TV to “targeted” media like website ads, search capabilities and social networks. The consequences for newspapers and magazines are clear; TV is fighting to hold onto every ad dollar with a new “social TV” initiative. And your personal information is what enables targeted advertising.

Two industries, advertising and data brokers, principally drive the colonization of digital personal information. Traditional online usage practices such as monitoring of sites visited, ad click-throughs and email keywords are the bread and butter of information capture.

At a Senate hearing in September 2007 reviewing Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, Sen. Herb Kohl warned, "The antitrust laws were written more than a century ago out of a concern with the effects of undue concentrations of economic power for our society as a whole, and not just merely their effects on consumers’ pocketbooks. No one concerned with antitrust policy should stand idly by if industry consolidation jeopardizes the vital privacy interests of our ciitzens so essential to our democracy."

The merger of these two ad-serving businesses set the stage of greater integration of personal information gathering and the online ad industry.

According to Forrester Research, total online advertising will more than double over the next five years, jumping from the 2011 estimate of $34.5 billion to $76.6 billion by 2016. Giving some texture to these numbers, eMarketing estimates that the top five online services control more than 70 percent of all monies spent. These five (and their relative market share) are: Google (43.5%), Yahoo! (11.9%), Facebook (7.7%), Microsoft (5.4%) and AOL (2.8%)

Facebook collects two types of information: (i) personal details provided by a user and (ii) usage data collected automatically as the user spends time at the site clicking around. When joining Facebook, a user discloses such information as name, email address, telephone number, address, gender and schools attended. In addition, it records a user’s online usage patterns, including the browser they use, the user's IP address and how long they spend logged into the site.


More pernicious, your personal Social Security number, phone numbers, credit card numbers, medical prescriptions, shopping habits, political affiliations and sexual orientation are now fodder for both corporate and government exploitation.

Both the ad agencies and data brokers have information capture down to a bad science. They track your every keystroke, your every order and bill payment, words and phrases in your emails and your every mobile movement.

And your personal information is pretty cheap as the following examples illustrate: address - $0.50; phone number - $0.25; unpublished phone number - $17.50; cell phone number - $10; Social Security number - $8; drivers license - $3; marriage/divorce - $7.95; education background - $12; employment history - $13; credit history - $9; bankruptcy information - $26.50; shareholder information - $1.50; lawsuit history – $2.95; felony record - $16; sex offender status - $13; and voter registration - $0.25. [Source:]


1. Privacy needs to be made a right.

“Privacy” is an implied – as distinguished from an explicit – right guaranteed by the Constitution. For all the rights suggested in the White House’s white paper, no new real right to privacy is proposed.


2. Regulation should replace voluntary compliance.

The White House program is based on the various interested parties, particularly online advertising companies, adopting a voluntary compliance commitment to safeguard people’s online privacy. But will self-regulation work?


3. Data vendors should be held accountable.

The White House document calls for data brokers to permit consumer reasonable access to the data they collect. It encourages the collectors to provide a mechanism for review, revision and limits to its use.


4. Bar federal agencies from buying private data.

The white paper fails to address the federal government’s growing reliance on information gathered by private data collectors, whether the information is accurate or not.


5. There’s a need for a global personal privacy standard.

The U.S. and Europe are moving in two opposing directions with regard to data privacy rules. The White House plan emphasizes mutual recognition of privacy approaches, an international role for codes of conduct and enforcement cooperation to safeguard personal privacy. Yet, the U.S. model is in keeping with its long tradition of putting the interest of business before its citizens; the Europeans are developing an online privacy program that places the interests of citizens first.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

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