Data privacy breaches seem to be the issue de jour for the tech sector. On October 18, 2010, it was revealed that several of the most popular Facebook applications had transmitted the personal information of tens of millions of users — including ID numbers, demographic data and names of friends — to various outside advertising and data companies. The next day [October 19, 2010], Canada’s privacy commissioner concluded that Google had violated that country’s privacy laws by harvesting personal information from unsecured wireless networks using it’s Street View system. In each case, it appears that the transmission of personal data violated the company’s own stated privacy policies. This means one of two things. Either these two companies didn’t know what their own technology was doing or they did know and are covering up this fact with denials and fingerpointing.
For all appearances, Google seems to be on the side of the angels on this one. When they first learned of the issue back in April/May, the company immediately ceased data collection and notified the authorities of what had happened. I’m not so sure about Facebook, though. Recent history suggests that the social networking giant has shifted its stand on privacy to better support its business model, which depends on open sharing of user information. Back in December 2009, the company changed the default privacy settings of its software so that users had to opt-out of the public availability of their information. Then, in an interview with Mike Arrington at the January 2010 Crunchies event, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg brushed aside privacy concerns by saying that these changes simply reflect the new “social norm” regarding the disclosure of personal information.
The problem is that, instead of letting people decide for themselves what these new social norms should be, Facebook has made a unilateral decision to nudge their users toward a more open information environment. This is pretty condescending approach. In reality, the company should just make it easier for any user to decided exactly how much personal information they want to share and with whom. The fact that Facebook can’t or won’t give their users the ability to fine tune their own privacy settings tells me that the company is betting its future on people’s willingness to give up their right to privacy for the convenience of talking to people they haven’t seen since Kindergarten.
My company has a public network that is open to all employees and is used to store shared information. The number of folders is quite large and — in an effort to make the search for a particular folder easier — a few people have started adding exclamation points to the front of their file names. This causes their file to float to the top of an alphabetized list, making it show up front and center when you navigate to the top node of the file hierarchy. Now, is this clever or rude?
Screen real estate is pretty important when it comes to web pages and mobile devices — I’ve heard many stories about departments or individuals who fought to have their information appear “above the fold” on a corporate site — but should this approach apply to an internal file network?
One could argue that only critical files should take pole position: emergency procedures or frequently accessed company data. But what happens when Jim from Marketing is just too lazy to scroll through everyone else’s stuff and vaults his file to first place? Is it OK for Suzie in Finance to then add two exclamation points to the name of her file? Does Bob the CEO get to use three exclamation points? Where does it all end?
The whole idea behind a system as venerable as alphabetical order is the we all know how to use it. By circumventing this system, are these people trampling on the rights of others just to gain an — albeit minor — advantage? Is this a trivial act of disobedience or is this more along the lines of cutting in line at the supermarket or parking in a handicapped space?
(In an interesting experiment, I added 27 exclamation points and a few ampersands to my file name … it was deleted.)
Anyone who’s ever used a computer has — at some point — lost a carefully-crafted sequence of ones and zeros to the unforgiving gods of the digital realm. Every time it happens, you mourn, you rage against the sky, you re-write and you move on. Each time, you add another rule-of-thumb to the mental checklist designed to minimize the losses or at least ease the reconstruction effort of the next minor catastrophe. In the end, it all boils down to one simple rule. That’s right, ladies and gentleman: save often.
I was reminded of this basic lesson when I arrived at work on Monday and was presented with an odd little e-mail from the data warehouse team. Why had I changed the user profile for the data feed to the Marketing server? Hmm … I hadn’t actually done anything to the profile and, when I checked the database, it was more than altered, it was completely missing. Not a big deal, I thought, because I could always re-instate the permissions from another source and then we’d be ready to continue with the upload process. Easy peasy.
But upon closer inspection of the tables, it became clear that something was slightly off. First of all, the tables were old — not really old but still missing a few months of data. Then I checked a few structural updates I’d made the previous week and they weren’t there. Several new procedures were missing, too, as were a couple of new tables and even recently stored files on the shared network. Not good. It was becoming pretty apparent that the DBA team had done something major over the weekend and that everything on our server had been rolled back to July. Further investigation suggested that they had done their overhaul without a backup.
It took two days of effort for everyone to finally accept that the information was just plain gone. I began the re-building effort rather reluctantly but it soon dawned on me that this whole incident was really a blessing in disguise. Our department had been working without a net for too long — our server was a creaky old SQL 2000 box leftover from a failed project and we’d never really had any official technical support. Now, we’ll probably be able to switch the whole thing over to a full-fledged production server with upgraded software, a routine maintenance plan and — best of all — a robust data backup procedure.
I was looking at an online timeline development application from xTimelines but I couldn’t get the embedding feature to work on this site. A quick search for similar tools led me to my alma mater, of all places, where they had done a nice evaluation of alternative timeline applications.
I also liked the Timeglider application but I thought the navigation was a little less intuitive. One interesting facet of this tool is that the company has teemed up with the New York Times to create an online application that generates a timeline of headlines for any search string. This is a powerful concept that takes advantage of the NYT data API … something I’ll have to explore further.
A recent Wired article discussed the dangers of trying to influence users through nudging — the practice of structuring a person’s choices in such a way as to get a desired result. It highlighted one of the key dynamics facing today’s high-tech companies as they shift from relatively independent creators of “whiz-bang” software to full-fledged consumer-oriented businesses. This tension between following your bliss and taking into account the expectations of others can be a tough cultural change for some companies.
As corporate self-interest becomes more important than user satisfaction, the nudging company’s approach to consumers becomes fragmented and incoherent.
The target of the article was Facebook but it could just as easily be applied to anything from politics to parenting. I remember learning pretty quickly that if I wanted my five-year-old daughter to put on a sweater, I didn’t come right out and ask her if she wanted to put on a sweater … I asked her if she wanted to put on the red sweater or the blue sweater. Sheer genius. Of course, as she got older, she got wise to my evil machinations and the nudging approach started to fail.
The problem for businesses is that their customers are at least as savvy as young children and these people get frustrated when websites, surveys, or automated phone menus don’t offer up reasonable choices (or even try and trick them into doing something they don’t want to). This type of behavior can contribute to reduced customer satisfaction, lost revenues and lower brand value.