Posted by: lsinrc | February 28, 2010

Who is to Blame for Cavalier Attitudes About Privacy?

Sorry for the long dry spell–I am living proof of the joke: “What are your hobbies?” “I have none, I am a homeowner.”

While watching the gradual deterioration of privacy over the years, we have been citing this same old joke in a different context: “What about privacy?” “There is none, this is the Internet.”  With these two unrelated events this past week-plus, the Google Buzz faux pas (WARNING: Google Buzz Has A Huge Privacy Flaw)  and the school-laptop-cam-monitoring fiasco (School district sued for using webcams to spy on students), it is time to examine the disturbing trends they represent.

I must be careful not to fall for the typical pitfall too often seen in journalism: take two coincidental events and cite them as proof of a national trend for a hyped headline–PRIVACY IS GONE! There are better examples on the loss of privacy; for that matter, the Google mistake is really pretty minor compared to their more intrusive practices (more about that in a later blog). The truly disturbing part is the blatantly overt attitude that these institutional practices were somehow initially justified as normal procedure.

Not that many years ago companies/organizations were careful to demonstrate a public front for being concerned about user privacy. For example, when iTunes was relatively new, Apple  reassured users that they did not monitor users listening habits or their collections of music. But as new upgrades of iTunes emerged, some tech savvy users noted that iTunes was beginning to send some info back to the home servers. Apple scrambled and tried to reassure users, but they were caught in a bind–how could they collect information about music not purchased from the iTunes store without upsetting users?  Being the shrewd company that they are, Apple figured out that all they needed to do was offer a desirable “service” for users  that inadvertently allowed Apple to collect the information and viola–album art and track titles for imported music. Now users are happy as Apple collects info on all music collections–no complaints.

In the past, companies like Apple and Google at least pretended to respect privacy while finding more covert ways of collecting information. With the release of Buzz, Google let slip their true attitude about our information and privacy. And why shouldn’t they–they have it all! They have your search habits, your advertising and purchasing preferences, much of your email correspondence, your contacts, your map queries and location from your cell phone, your voicemail transcripts, your photo collections, your documents, and even more depending on what other services you use. Compared to all the information Google has collected about you and your Internet habits, making your contacts part of a public release for their social tool Buzz seems rather minor.

The school event is even more surprising–not the fact that individuals abused their power by monitoring students in the privacy of their own homes; those of us around 1:1 projects and know the monitoring capabilities can expect an abuse of that power sometime. The shocking part was for the administration to believe their deplorable act justified as a means to catch students’ wrongdoing within their own homes.

It is one thing for individuals in companies and schools to covertly undermine your privacy for their own means. It is quite another for the organizations to expect people to accept these practices as normal operating procedure–this is the part that is most disturbing.

It does make me wonder: have all these years of coaching to people to be cautious with the Internet actually contributed to this attitude? For example, the early days of email we advised users to be careful with the content because of the possibility someone could intercept it (we used the analogy of a postcard passing through the post office–it probably won’t be read but it is possible). Not that long ago a vast majority of people would not use credit cards over the Internet for fear of someone intercepting the transaction.  I am starting to suspect that these acts of precaution may have an unexpected consequence: subtly contributing to people accepting that electronic invasions of privacy are to be expected–the very nature of the Internet makes it okay. For example, there are strong federal penalties for someone intercepting a letter mailed through the post office–why don’t we expect the same level of protection for electronic correspondence?  Why are we more willing to accept breaches on our electronic world than our physical world?

It is easy to point fingers at companies and organizations for becoming cavalier with our privacy. But doesn’t the problem equally fall on our shoulders for accepting a different level of privacy for our electronic lives?

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