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Posted at 08:50 AM ET, 02/22/2012

Google, Safari and our final privacy wake-up call


The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California in this September 2, 2011 file photo. (KIMIHIRO HOSHINO - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Correction: An earlier version of this post reported that Google exposed “personal information to advertisers.” According to Google spokeswoman Rachel Whetstone, the application did not expose or collect personal information. This version has been revised.

"What did they know, and when did they know it?"

This famous line from the bygone Watergate era is strangely applicable to the current era of personal privacy break-ins that have been occurring with stunning regularity on the Web. The latest company accused of being caught with their hands in the Internet cookie jar was Google, which was found to be bypassing default privacy settings in Safari in order to better track users.

While Google claimed, through spokeswoman Rachel Whetstone, that it had merely “used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled” within Safari, the preliminary evidence, as outlined by Stanford graduate student Jonathan Mayer, appears to point to a different scenario: that Google “tricked” Safari into accepting third-party cookies.


Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs introduces the new Apple internet browser, "Safari" during his keynote speech in this January 7, 2003 file photo at the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, California. (JOHN G. MABANGLO - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

For Google — the company that gave us the slogan "Don't Be Evil" — the misstep is especially embarrassing, given that this marks the fourth time in the past 2 years that the company has been accused of willfully violating user privacy rights. This time, Internet users are taking Google to court, claiming that Google is knowingly and willfully breaking federal wiretap laws. Back in February 2010, the company’s Google Buzz offering landed the Google in deep trouble with the FTC for deceptive practices and violating its own privacy policies across the Web. More recently, there was the legal dust-up over Google's new privacy policy, which makes it easier for the company to track users across any platform and any device, once they’ve logged in to their Google account.

However, it’s not just Google that has been caught exploiting privacy loopholes in order to access user data. Social networking giant Facebook seems to undergo privacy fiascos with every new feature launch, as users discover just how much of their personal data is potentially being shared with advertisers and other third parties. While default privacy settings can be difficult to understand, the lesson should be clear by now: The more you share with your friends, the more you potentially share with third-party sites.

The hottest new social networking sites, such as Path and Pinterest, are also not immune from privacy gaffes as they attempt to sign up users in droves. Last week, Path was caught uploading user address books in their entirety, which resulted in an extended mea culpa from the company’s CEO. Pinterest, which exploded in popularity by literally enabling users to take visual content on one site and move it to another, more visual site — is now finding out the hard way that some people just want to opt-out of having their content re-pinned entirely.

Unfortunately, we will continue to experience privacy break-ins across the Web for one simple reason: the secret to winning the future of the Internet lies in the ability to monetize all this personal data. This is especially true, now that many people are shifting their Web consumption habits to mobile devices, which theoretically enable real-time, 24/7 tracking. At the end of the day, Web firms need your data for essentially two reasons: (1) to deliver a more personalized experience for users or (2) to sell this data to advertisers and third parties. Thus far, we’ve given companies like Google a free pass, taking them at their word that they are not somehow “evil,” that they are, indeed, delivering a superior, personalized experience.

Even before the Safari discovery, public sentiment was starting to shift. If, before, we assumed that social networks were using our data to help us create richly personalized experiences, there’s now a sinking realization that the reason why Google and Facebook are worth tens of billions of dollars is because they’ve found a way to monetize all of our personal data. Google’s Safari problem is symptomatic of a larger one: As companies like Apple race to erect proprietary walls around their content ecosystems, companies like Google are racing just as fast to find a backdoor into them. With Safari now responsible for 55% of all smart phone and tablet browsing activity worldwide, Google is suddenly finding itself shut out of Internet browsing data that it once had access to.

The answer to these privacy break-ins is not more government regulation of the Web, as several Congressmen are now urging after Google's latest privacy-related woes. Rather, the answer is making it easier for individuals to monitor and self-police their Web presence. Safari needs to be a final wake-up call: We all need to be more vigilant about what data is being shared, with whom it is being shared, and where. After all, to paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville, in a democracy, we get the Internet we deserve.

Full disclosure: The Washington Post Co.’s chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.

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