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.