MediaFile

Paying the piper for privacy

Three privacy stories caught my attention in the past week:

1. Google is paying a token $7 million fine for sniffing out private information as its roving Google Maps cars gathered images for Street View.

2. A new study has found that seemingly innocent disclosures on Facebook can be used to form highly accurate predictions about whether you are a genius, drug user or gay.

3. If you use certain porta-potties at the Austin, Texas, tech confab South By Southwest, passersby know if you are … standing or sitting inside, and for how long.

Is all of that what we signed up for?

Privacy is a huge issue — too huge for a single, brief column. But I’m going to make a prediction. I don’t know when or how it will happen, but before too long there will be a jarring, transformational event that will cause us to question our online behavior. Some horrendous breach of privacy, well within the parameters of some service’s Terms of Service, will spark mainstream outrage and cause companies to scramble with damage control.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We’ve had plenty of warning. Facebook’s business model is entirely based on members expressing preferences on just about everything – it was in part the volume of information that allowed the researchers to find the correlations I mentioned earlier. Google’s business model is arguably less invasive but is also based on the relinquishment of online privacy to one degree or another.

Instagram unleashes a thousand words

Instagram surely didn’t expect to stir up a hornet’s nest with changes to its terms of service announced two days ago. But it was met with an Internet flash mob: high-profile tech writers who had adored the service abandoning it and thousands of angry words from the rest of us about what Instagram’s pictures are really worth.

The issue was joined with these 115 words:

Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf.

The next day, Instagram had a bit more to say:

Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

Facebook may yet learn that power does not ensure immortality

Facebook wasted no time acting with impunity by (once again) diluting member privacy protections this week. But it needn’t have hurried. Any semblance of democracy was washed away at noon Pacific Time Tuesday, when a vote to have votes on policy changes went down in flames. It solidified the world’s largest social network’s rule by fiat. This may be good for business now, but in the long-run it could backfire.

On Tuesday not enough Facebook members weighed in on whether they should keep their right to vote down policy changes. The vote didn’t count unless 30 percent of the service’s 1 billion members bothered to vote.

The vote to keep the vote failed to meet the arbitrary threshold — by 299 million votes.

The Facebook Doctrine

Instagram, the mobile photo sharing app that Facebook bought for about $700 million, has been doing something new over the past few weeks. Up until now, one couldn’t see all of a user’s Instagrams online, the way you could, say, see all of a Twitter users’ tweets. But in recent weeks, users’ collections have been uploaded to the Internet automatically (see my profile page as an example). Instagram never bothered to ask for permission. Don’t want people to be able to easily access all your pictures from your Web browser? Too bad.

Between the Instagram change and other more substantive and complex alterations to Facebook’s user-feedback policy this week, the world’s largest social network has a clear modus operandi: What’s good for Facebook is good for you. This is the Facebook Doctrine.

Along with relatively innocuous Instagram changes came word that Facebook intends to eliminate its very modest experiment with democracy. It was a scheme by which members could undo changes (but still not stop them from happening before they took place). The rules Facebook put in place established a transparent process: A policy could be reversed if it received more than 7,000 comments, more than 30 percent of people on Facebook participated in a vote, and if that plurality voted against it.

Intel’s facial-recognition freaks out potential customers

Mine and Yinka Adegoke’s story today on Intel’s proposal to use facial-recognition technology with a virtual TV service and set-top box has raised legitimate concerns about allowing Big Brother into consumers’ living rooms.

People’s reluctance to have a camera keep tabs on who is sitting in front of their TV may be a hurdle that Intel has underestimated as it struggles to convince media content providers to hand over their shows.

When I bought a Kinect for my Xbox last year, I felt paranoid for at least a couple of weeks every time I sat down on my sofa in front of my TV. Each time I turn on my Xbox, a camera — connected to Microsoft and the Internet — sees everything I do.

Facebook’s private experiment with democracy

Facebook is having a vote on changes to its privacy policy. Not that you’d know it.

Voter turnout has always been a problem for developed nations, but what about developed social networks? Facebook, with its 900 million users, is often written about as if it were the personal prelature of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. But Facebook itself prefers the term “ecosystem” – with good reason. Facebook’s engineers provide the basic conditions for life – the agar at the bottom of the social-media Petri dish. In turn, it’s developers and users who really craft their own worlds, their own experiences of Facebook – not Facebook itself. And whatever world they craft, it can only exist in the laws that govern the Facebook universe. Who ultimately decides those laws? Facebook.

Given that reality, it’s amazing that most users don’t care a lick about the vote happening on the site, right now, today, over proposed changes to Facebook’s privacy policies. Nor did they care much about the last vote over the site’s Terms of Service, which happened in 2009. Of course, it’s hard to care about something you don’t know is happening. Even though the vote is making the news here and there, there’s no inkling of any promotion on Facebook itself about what sounds like a rather important site event.

Older and bigger, Facebook rethinks a youthful flirtation with user democracy

With about 900 million people, Facebook is larger than all but two countries in the world. But the nation of Facebook’s experiment with direct democracy may be coming to an end after only a few years.

On Friday, Facebook said it will “review” a process that allows users of the online social network to vote for or against changes to its privacy and site governance policies.

The user feedback process was implemented at a time when Facebook a much smaller, privately-held company and may no longer be well-suited to the company’s current situation, Facebook explained  in a blog post.

Google’s unhealthy cookie habit

Google got its hand caught in the cookie jar last week — and this time it really does have some explaining to do.

The search giant, which derives some 97 percent of its revenues from advertising, thought it would be all right to circumvent some protections incorporated into Apple’s Safari browser so that it could better target its ads. By intentionally bypassing the default privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser — and, as Microsoft has now asserted, Internet Explorer — Google has decided for all of us that our Web activity will be more closely tracked. They opted us in, without asking. And without a way for us to opt out. (We didn’t even know about it until the Wall Street Journal blew the lid off this last Thursday.)

On the merits, this is a pretty big deal. A class action has already been filed, and an FTC probe is almost certain. That the no-tracking settings were circumvented (and secretly) makes it easier to infer that even Google worried it might be touching a third rail. It says it wasn’t, that its intent was only to discern whether Google users were logged into Google services and that the enabling of advertising cookies was inadvertent.

Tech wrap: Google bypassed Safari privacy settings

Google landed in hot water over revelations that the search giant and ad companies had bypassed the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple’s Safari Web browser, using special computer code that tracked their movements online. Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer discovered the code. Subsequently, a technical adviser to the Wall Street Journal found that ads on 22 of the top 100 websites installed the Google tracking code on a test computer, and ads on 23 sites installed it on an iPhone browser. Google disabled the code after being contacted by the Journal, the newspaper said, and Google issued a statement, saying: “The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It’s important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.”

Apple’s share of China’s booming smartphone market slipped for a second straight quarter in October-December, as it lost ground to cheaper local brands and as some shoppers held off until after the iPhone 4S launch last month. While Apple regained its top spot as the world’s largest smartphone vendor in the fourth quarter and for last year as a whole, it slipped to 5th place in China. In the last quarter, Samsung knocked Nokia off the top slot, taking 24.3 percent of the market, more than three times Apple’s share, data from research firm Gartner showed.

A British student, who hacked into Facebook’s internal network risking “disastrous” consequences for the website, was jailed for eight months in what prosecutors described as the most serious case of its kind they had seen. Glenn Mangham, 26, a software development student, admitted infiltrating Facebook from his bedroom at his parents’ house in York in northern England last year, sparking fears at the company that it was dealing with major industrial espionage.

Tech wrap: Apple iOS apps to require “explicit” OK to share your contacts

Apple tweaked its policy on permission iOS apps need to access the contact information of users after legislators sought more information from the company regarding its privacy policies.

“Apps that collect or transmit a user’s contact data without their prior permission are in violation of our guidelines,” an Apple spokesman told Reuters. “We’re working to make this even better for our customers, and as we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release.”

The announcement came after Path, a San Francisco startup, attracted widespread criticism last week after a Singaporean developer discovered that Path’s iPhone app had been quietly uploading his contacts’ names and phone numbers onto Path’s servers. In the following days, other tech bloggers discovered that iPhone apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare similarly uploads user data – without permission, in some cases. Later, blogger Dustin Curtis, wrote in a widely distributed post that “there’s a quiet understanding among many iOS app developers that it is acceptable to send a user’s entire address book, without their permission to remote servers and then store it for future reference.”