Advances in technology and social media, while making the world more interconnected, have diminished privacy tremendously. Much of the growing concern over these breakthroughs goes beyond the blurring line between public and private life; it is about the potential dangers of these capabilities if left in the wrong hands. We are forced to ask ourselves where to draw the line and, more specifically, how much we can trust the wielders of this technology. Here we’ll take a look at what’s at stake. (For some background reading, check out What You Should Know About Your Privacy Online.)
Oh Where, Oh Where Has Our Privacy Gone …
If there’s anything that gets privacy advocates up in arms, it’s the increasing amount of technology that can track where we are. Whether you’re sitting at the local coffee shop or logging in at work, technology companies like Google and Apple have worked painstakingly to improve access to location-based technology over the last several years. First there was Google Maps, an unprecedented service that allows people street views of virtually any address in the developed world. More recently, Apple has unveiled plans for sky views, a project that involves flying contracted airplanes above metropolitan areas to give users an aerial view. Both of these developments are the result of the growing 3-D mapping service competition in which both giants are engaged.
Then there’s Facebook, the social media hub that so quickly captured the attention of nearly one-sixth of the world’s population. Facebook’s reach has been accompanied by an unprecedented amount of data collection. Everything from users’ tastes, to their pictures and status updates has been indefinitely stored by the company for its private use. As part of the agreement, Facebook users effectively renounce their right to information that is placed on the website before even making their first post. This leaves the company at full liberty to do as it wishes with whatever a user’s profile includes. While some of this information has been used to help advertisers target their marketing initiatives, it remains unclear what Facebook’s intentions for this information will be going forward. This is partly because Facebook remains coy about how its user data will be put to use. These issues have set the stage for a privacy debate that has left many feeling uneasy about the state of user privacy in the coming years. (And that’s not all that can (and does) go wrong here. Read 7 Signs of Facebook Scam for tips on how to protect yourself from Facebook scammers.)
But despite the headway many tech companies have made in terms of collecting personal data, they’ve encountered a fair amount of resistance over it. In June 2012, the UK Commissioners Office revived a previous investigation of Google Street View because of allegations that the vehicles the company used to capture street views also collected personal data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. Google maintains that this data was collected by mistake and will be properly disposed of, but that has done little to allay the concerns of skeptics. Many are perturbed not only over the scope of the breach of privacy and the sensitivity of some of the information involved, but also over just how easy it was for Google to collect it. For its part, Google pledged to store the information in external hard drives that will be destroyed.
Facebook has had to deal with its own share of blow-back over its practices. In one of its bigger privacy blunders, in 2010, Facebook was alleged to have disclosed user IDs and other information about users to advertisers without the users’ consent. What was most striking about this discovery was that it went against Facebook’s initial promise to protect personal user information from advertisers. In a statement, Facebook countered by stating:
"As is common with advertising across the Web, the data that is sent in a referrer URL includes information about the Web page the click came from … This may include the user ID of the page but not the person who clicked on the ad. We don’t consider this personally identifiable information, and our policy does not allow advertisers to collect user information without the user’s consent."
Essentially, Facebook side-steps its promise to users by alleging that the information disclosed doesn’t match their definition of "personally identifiable information."
It gets better. In May 2012, a $15 billion class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook over the company’s alleged breaches of privacy. Whether all this controversy actually manages to damage Facebook’s business remains to be seen, but what is clear is that privacy breaches are common – and commonly maligned. (To read more about why privacy is such an issue online, check out Don’t Look Now, But Online Privacy May Be Gone for Good.)
What Can Be Done? What Will Be Done?
All this has left many wondering how exactly to regain that sense of privacy and dignity that should accompany any wide-ranging technology. How do we use these technological wonders without compromising ourselves? And furthermore, can we ensure that our information is safe in the hands of these corporations? There are no simple answers to these questions. While members of Congress as well as regulators continue to prod companies like Google, Apple and Facebook for transparency, they seem unequipped to fully deal with the scope of these issues, and the speed at which they’re taking shape.
Company supporters like to argue that companies that gather personal information from their users and the public at large are just trying to monetize the services they so generously provide for free. Even so, there has been some progress in the privacy battle, thanks mostly to public outrage. In June 2012, for example, Facebook signed a privacy agreement with the state of California regarding the use of personal data from its mobile apps. Google, for its part, has agreed to meet with members of Congress to discuss concerns developing over its 3-D mapping service. Apple has also vigilantly addressed concerns over its 3-D mapping service as well as growing concerns over the voice recognition capabilities of its Siri application.
The Voice of Reason
When it comes to our privacy – both online and in public – the voice of reason will most likely not come from the federal government, but from technology users. As these companies continue to grow, it is we who must decide how far is too far and where the line needs to be drawn. It is we who will determine what the new standards of privacy will be in this evolving technological era. Most importantly, we must decide what things, big or small, we are willing to give up for progress.