Online Privacy Is a Serious Matter, So Why Do Few People Care?

Facebook, Google and many other Websites collect and use consumer information in ways few people understand. It's time to stop being so naive, say analysts.

On Jan. 15 Facebook introduced Graph Search, a search capability that it hopes will encourage users to direct their questions to the social media site instead of to resources such as Google or Yelp.

As tends to be the case with changes to Facebook, the new feature raised questions about privacy and who can search what about whom. In a video released Jan. 15, a Facebook employee, Julia, discussed how users can adjust their settings to shield information from the wider community but make it available to their friends.

Epitomizing the Facebook rules that keep even seasoned users guessing, Julia, explaining how to hide photos, added, "Remember, hidden photos can still appear elsewhere on Facebook, such as on Friends' timelines or in Search."

Facebook, of course, is just one of countless online entities that collect, store and sell or barter user data—data that the world unflinchingly offers.

Ahead of the Facebook announcement, eWEEK asked several analysts about the degree to which they believe consumers understand that their online information is being collected and, if there is a disconnect—if consumers are surprised or displeased about how much of their information is being collected—where does the responsibility reside? Should online companies be more forthcoming about their practices, in plainer, more obviously presented language? Does the government need to better regulate such things? Or does the average American need to be less passive or even more guarded?

Charles King, an analyst with research firm Pund-IT, said he doubts most people fully understand how online companies are using their information, which is due to the "multidimensional nature of the beast."

"That is," he continued, "that there's no single model or use case that online companies follow. Google and Microsoft may both be running personalized advertising businesses, but they're doing it in discretely individual ways whose differences are often hard to discern."

The only fully workable model for change, said King, is one in which the responsibilities and benefits are shared.

"But that's also the least likely to be implemented," he added. "In large part, that's because of the laissez-faire development environment that has long surrounded the Internet. That was certainly the case during the 1990s, when companies persuaded politicians that online businesses needed to evolve without constraint. ... The first rule of living and working on the Internet remains, sadly, caveat emptor—let the buyer beware."

Ken Hyers, an analyst with Technology Business Research, expects most people are aware to some degree that their information is being tracked, but not how it's being shared, whether within companies or with third parties.

"This is a huge issue, with enormous implications, especially as more consumers use mobile devices to access information through apps and the Internet," Hyers told eWEEK. "Mobile applications can track an incredible amount of information, such as users' location, the contacts in their address book, and what they're buying or considering buying."

Companies use the information to build highly detailed user profiles that they market to consumers. Is marketing so nefarious?

"I believe that the balance between information collected and consumers' benefit from this collection, over the last couple of years, has shifted dramatically in online companies favor," said Hyers. "And I believe that there is a danger that the consumer will begin to benefit less from this ongoing shift."

"But consumers are generally passive about online privacy; they click the agreement button and install the app, or agree to cookies and don't read users' agreements, because most of these sites and services and apps are extremely convenient," he continued. "Online companies depend on this passivity, but as they build detailed user profiles, the potential for privacy invasion and misuse of the data grows."

We've reached a point, Hyers believes, where "regulations governing how this information is collected and used, including explicit and easy-to-understand information about exactly what is collected, are necessary."

Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies, is less forgiving of consumers' passivity and, like Hyers, notes that a shift has taken place. He brought up the classic New Yorker cartoon in which one dog says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." It was funny, because 15 years ago the Internet was anonymous. Now, it's personal.

"People are giving away so much real stuff to Facebook. ... It's real information about you ... and it's tied to you by your IP address and location. And the Twitter information is now in real time—if you tweet about the beauty of Piazza San Marco, people understand that you're in Venice. So you expose your location data, potentially, and other things about yourself," Kay told eWEEK.

During the '80s, Kay spent time in the Soviet Union, and in a culture where people expected their lives weren't private and they were being watched, when they had private information to share, "they would go to elaborate means to hide their communications," he said. "And that was in a world before there was a camera on every city street corner."

Or, Web sites on which one can post personal photos along with biographic information and a telephone number.

"The information object that represents you only gets more complex—it never shrinks," said Kay, sounding like the concerned father he is. "Your address might change or an old one might drop out, but your data object is busy assembling itself as we speak. The citizenry need to educate themselves and think for themselves."

He offered a darker scenario than effective marketing.

"It's not that we have a fascist government now, but we could have one in five years, or 25 years," he said, "and they won't need to collect [your information]. You'll have already done it for them."

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