Thursday, September 29, 2011

Online Privacy is a Myth

Online privacy has become a major concern. With the rapid growth of social media and mobile devices people are spending considerable time on the internet. According to comScore Media Metrix average American net surfers spent 32 hours per month in 2010.

According to the recent Nielsen report, 80% of active internet users visit social networks and blogs. Facebook is the most visited U.S. website. Nearly 40% mobile owners use their mobile phones to access social media content.

The norms of privacy have changed over years. A few years back people were scared to have an online presence but now have gotten savvy enough to put frequent status updates. We have become comfortable sharing our geographic location, associations, education, work history and pictures of ourselves and our loved ones. Friendship is not just limited to people but even to brands. Such information is key to online advertisers who can then target customized ads.

In October 2010, Wall Street Journal broke a story on Facebook how most of the popular Facebook apps had been transmitting people's names and in some cases their friends names to at least 25 advertising and data firms that track online activities of users. RapLeaf was one of such tracking companies that compiles and sells information on users online activities. The company had linked Facebook user ID information obtained from apps to its own database of Internet users, which it sells.

Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook is nearing a settlement with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) if approved would require Facebook to get explicit consent from its 800 million users before making privacy changes. The probe started when Facebook made changes to users account that exposed their names, pictures and other personal information which the user had specifically confined to specific people. As part of the proposed settlement, Facebook would also submit to government reviews of its privacy practices for 20 years.

Google has had similar issues with its soon to be shut down Google Buzz service where they exposed the users contacts to general public through their profile page without consent. Google entered into a similar pact with FTC on the issue.

Klout, a startup, that integrates with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and many more to measure just how effective one's online presence is also ran into a privacy issue. Klout was creating auto-profiles for users including children who never registered for one with them. After the huge uproar Klout is no longer creating auto-profiles for anyone and user can delete existing profiles.

In the age of social networks its hard to keep yourself off of one so it is critical to understand the impact of information you share online. Understand the privacy settings of your online accounts to adopt tighter privacy control. Here's the disheartening part, even with such settings there is no guarantee. Even though you may not disclose personal information, but your online friends may unknowingly do it, referring to your school or employer, gender, location and interests. Computing power has grown exponentially to correlate all this information to produce a social signature of you which can be quite accurate.

The best advice is to realize that your online activities are more public than you may think and so act accordingly.

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