I tend to be a ‘glass-half’ sort of person, seeing the positive side of any problem. In terms of privacy, however, this has been very hard over the last few weeks. For some reason, most of the ‘big guns’ of the internet world have chosen the last few weeks to try to out-do each other in their privacy-intrusiveness. One after the other, Google, Facebook and Amazon have made moves that have had such huge implications for privacy that it’s hard to keep positive. It feels like a massive privacy 'race to the bottom'.
Taking Google first, it wasn’t exactly that any particular new service or product hit privacy, but more the sense of what lies ahead that was chilling, with Google’s VP of Products, Bradley Horowitz, talking about how ‘Google + was Google itself’. As Horowitz put it in an interview for Wired last week:
"But Google+ is Google itself. We're extending it across all that we do — search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube — so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are."
Our understanding of who you are. Hmmm. The privacy alarm bells are ringing, and ringing loud. Lots of questions arise, most directly to do with consent, understanding and choice. Do people using Google Maps, or browsing with Chrome, or even using search, know, understand and accept that their actions are being used to build up profiles so that Google can understand 'who they are'? Do they have any choice about whether their data is gathered or used, or how or whether their profile is being generated? The assumption seems to be that they just 'want' it, and will appreciate it when it happens.
Mind you, Facebook are doing their very best to beat Google in the anti-privacy race. The recent upgrade announced by Facebook has had massive coverage, not least for its privacy intrusiveness, from Timeline to Open Graph. Once again it appears that Mark Zuckerberg is making his old assumption that privacy is no longer a social norm, and that we all want to be more open and share everything. Effectively, he seems to be saying that privacy is dead - and if it isn't quite yet, he'll apply the coup-de-grace.
That, however is only part of the story. The other side is a bit less expected, and a bit more sinister. Thanks to the work of Australian hacker/blogger Nik Cubrilovic, it was revealed that Facebook's cookies 'might' be continuing to track us after we log out of Facebook. Now first of all Facebook denied this, then they claimed it was a glitch and did something to change it. All the time, Facebook tried to portray themselves as innocent - even as the 'good guys' in the story. A Facebook engineer – identifying himself as staffer Gregg Stefancik – said that “our cookies aren’t used for tracking”, and that “most of the cookies you highlight have benign names and values”. He went on to make what seemed to be a very reassuring suggestion quoted in The Register:
"Generally, unlike other major internet companies, we have no interest in tracking people."
How, then, does this square with the discovery that a couple of weeks ago Facebook appears to have applied for a patent to do precisely that? The patent itself is chilling reading. Amongst the gems in the abstract is the following:
"The method additionally includes receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the third-party website"
Not only do they want to track us, but they don't want us to know about it, telling us they have no interest in tracking.
OK, so that's Google and Facebook, with Facebook probably edging slightly ahead in their privacy-intrusiveness. But who is this coming fast on the outside? Another big gun, but a somewhat unexpected one: Amazon. The new Kindle Fire, a very sexy bit of kit, takes the Kindle, transforms the screen into something beautiful and colourful. It also adds a web-browsing capability, using a new browser Amazon calls Silk. All fine, so far, but the kicker is that Silk appears to track your every action on the web and pass it on to Amazon. Take that, Google, take that Facebook! Could Amazon beat both of them in the race to the bottom? They're certainly giving it a go.
All pretty depressing reading for those of us interested in privacy. And the trio could easily be joined by another of the big guns when Apple launches its new 'iCloud' service, due this week. I can't say I'm expecting something very positive from a service which might put all your content in the cloud....
...and yet, somehow, I DO remain positive. Though the big guns all seem to be racing the same way, there has at least been a serious outcry about most of it, and it's making headline news not just in what might loosely be described as the 'geek press'. Facebook seemed alarmed enough by Nik Cubrilovic's discoveries to react swiftly, even if a touch disingenuously. We all need to keep talking about this, we all need to keep challenging the assumption that privacy doesn't matter. We need to somehow start to shift the debate, to move things so that companies compete to be the most privacy-friendly rather than the most privacy-intrusive. If we don't, there's only one outcome. The only people who really lose in the privacy race-to-the-bottom are us....