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Late last week we, the citizens of the Internet, learned that Google’s codewriters intentionally circumvented the privacy settlings on the mobile version of Apple’s Safari browser.  This was the latest incident in a continuing series of revelations about what might be described as the erosion of privacy in the era of social media. According to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story on February 19th, Google and other companies “used special computer code that tricks Apple's Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users. Safari, the most widely used browser on mobile devices, is designed to block such tracking by default.”  Google’s intentional efforts to circumvent the privacy settings on Safari even contradicted information on Google’s own web pages: “until recently,” stated the WSJ, “one Google site told Safari users they could rely on Safari's privacy settings to prevent tracking by Google. Google removed that language from the site Tuesday night [February 16th].”

The Google story is just the latest chapter in the continuing saga about digital privacy that includes location tracking on iPhones (Apple), harvesting information from users’ smartphone address books (Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Yelp, among others), and poor system level password protection (Twitter).  Understandably, the Google revelations elevate the both the anger and the angst, given the firm’s widely publicized “Don’t be evil” credo.  Too, there is the irony of Google’s corporate behavior – code designed to circumvent privacy controls on the Safari browser – and the its current “Good to Know” newspaper and billboard ads which WebProNews recently described as “basically Internet Safety 101 to help newbies avoid getting drained by online vampires.”  (Wait: if Google wrote code to circumvent the privacy controls on Safari, was the company not “draining” data from online users?)

While these recent incidents focus on smartphones and social media, there is a kind of plus ca change dimension to this story.  Beginning with the quest for eyeballs, tech firms have long sought ways to extract data from (and about) their users.  For example, in January 1999 Intel experienced blowback from privacy advocates over plans to include an “identifying serial number (PSN) that could be used to track computers — and computer users — across the Internet” in its newly released Pentium III processor.  Intel ultimately succumbed to criticism and disabled the PSN feature on the Pentium III.   But just hours after Intel announced plans to disable the PSN features, Scott McNealy, the ever candid CEO of Sun Microsystems, told a group of industry analysts and reporters that “You have zero privacy . . . get over it.”  And that was more than a decade ago, well before the emergence of social media.

Alas, the history of the tech industry over the past 17 years and the emergence of the consumer internet has been marked by a kind of cold war over privacy between tech providers and tech users. The tech industry (just like higher ed!) prefers self-regulation over government regulation.  That’s the mission of the Online Privacy Alliance, founded in 1998 “to lead and support [technology industry] self-regulatory initiatives that create an environment of trust and that foster the protection of individuals' privacy online and in electronic commerce.”    Unfortunately, the recent (some might say continuing) disclosures about data harvesting without explicit user permission erode trust and foster calls for government regulation.

Which brings us to Thursday's announcement from the White House advocating a  “Privacy Bill of Rights," described as an initiative intended “to give users more control over how their personal information is used on the Internet and to help businesses maintain consumer trust and grow in the rapidly changing digital environment.”   As the NY Times noted on Thursday afternoon, “much remains to be done before consumers can click on a button in their Web browser to set their privacy standards. Congress will probably have to write legislation governing the collection and use of personal data, officials said, something that is unlikely to occur this year. And the companies that make browsers — Google, Microsoft, Apple and others — will have to agree to the new standards.”  

Many groups representing consumers and the tech industry will be involved in this legislative process, offering  opinion, epiphany, and evidence intended to aid (or perhaps impede) the movement of the Privacy Bill of Rights from press release to presidential signing.

In the interim, we need to remember that digital privacy is the coin of the realm in our Faustian pact with social media.  What helps to pay for the “free lunch” of email and social media services from Facebook, Foursquare, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, and Yelp, among others, is user generated data:  “they” get to watch, capture, analyze, and monetize (that wonderful word from the era).

Dear Reader: how do you feel about being watched?


SIDEBAR:    Scott (“You have no privacy…get over it”) McNealy, now the chairman of Wayin and founder of Curriki, remains a keen and candid observer of the tech industry. Please click here for the video archive of my January 11th interview with Mr. McNealy at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) / HigherEdTECH Summit. 

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