Privacy Settings are a Crutch. Free Apps Profit from your Data

Happy 1984

William Vambenepe posts a challenging thought piece with a very simple contention – Data too sensitive to leak from Facebook is too sensitive to be on Facebook.

Vambenepe gives many examples of ways that Facebook can fail, but sums it up with a simple piece of advice: “Don’t put anything on any social network that you don’t want to be made public.” He goes on to broaden his thesis, looking at the Google Buzz fiasco saying that:

It’s as if your insurance company suddenly decided it wanted to enter the social networking business and announced one day that you were now “friends” with all their customers who share the same medical condition. And will you please log in and update your privacy settings if you have a problem with that, you backward-looking, privacy-hugging, profit-dissipating idiot.

All of which was interesting given the (somewhat in jest) session I lead at the recent Google Bar Camp entitled “Who is more evil, Google, Apple or Microsoft?”. Now given that this was a Google event with a bunch of Apple users present, I was pretty certain that Redmond would come out looking worst in the scrap but in fact this wasn’t the case. At both this session and a similar one I’d run previously along the same lines – people surprised me in their response. Many seemed to have the view that all three are evil, it’s just that with Microsoft and Apple their evilness is overt, whereas with Google it’s a much more understated attribute.

Now I’m not at all a Google hater. I live in Google apps, I’ve got lots of friends who work for the organization and fundamentally I love what they’ve done to the marketplace but despite all that I feel a little… uneasy. The theory goes like this:

Microsoft and Apple make their gazillions  from selling software and/or hardware that, in a lot of examples, is proprietary and that traps its users into a particular way of working. Users, to a greater or lesser extent, accept this vendor lock in because they:

  1. Gain a consistent way of working
  2. Feel some certainty over the security of their data

Google is different – we all know that Google manages to offer us cheap or free products mainly because they are able to make huge money off of the collective intelligence that they so effectively mine – and this is where our concerns begin. People are (broadly) comfortable with their web searching habits being part of the great Google aggregate, but that becomes more concerning when they’re considering the same with their documents, their photos, their financial data.

So what can we learn from this triumvirate? And how should we relate that to the current furore regarding Facebook and privacy?

As Vambenepe says:

Yes you should have clear privacy settings. But the place to store them is in your brain and the place to enforce them is by controlling what your fingers do before data gets on Facebook. Facebook and similar networks can only leak data that they posses. A lot of that data comes from you directly uploading it. And that’s the point where you have control. After this, you really don’t. Other data comes from tracking and analyzing your activities and connections, without explicit data upload from you. That’s a lot harder for you to control (you rarely get asked for your privacy preferences on this data), but that’s out of scope for this blog entry.

Just like banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist, data that is too sensitive to leak from Facebook is too sensitive to be on Facebook.

And so as many questions are raised as are answered – I’d like to get a feel for how the readership regards the big three – Google, Apple and Microsoft, in terms of privacy and how this relates to an unasahamedly consumer play, Facebook.

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