Privacy Quest

December 12, 2009

There have been a couple of big announcements in the realm of privacy in the past couple of weeks, and I wanted to take this post to talk about the developments.

The first announced this week is that Facebook has updated its privacy functionality ostensibly in order to give you more control over the information that you give out through the service. However, as many people are commenting, a lot of the privacy protection that was previously available now is not.

Facebook is a business that is designed to have as much information available as possible as this makes it a much more interesting site for users, however, if people are not comfortable with how much information is available this sort of plan could backfire.

As you can see here, if you aren’t my friend, I have my privacy setting set at a very high level. You can’t even find me in a search if you don’t know me. (The profile with no data isn’t actually me. I’m not on there at all.) While that might seem a bit extreme for some, I’m perfectly happy with that level of privacy. This is a setting that is still available with the new Facebook privacy changes.

Now a company that is getting some praise for its latest move is Google. Google has created a new privacy dashboard, which, when signed in, allows you to look at all the data Google has compiled on you. More importantly, it has many setting that allow you to delete that information. So, if Google has your search history and there’s something on there that you don’t want, you can finally do something about it.

Ultimately, privacy needs to be something that users have control over and don’t feel that they are giving away to use the Internet. This is certainly a challenge for content providers as this is a key way to deliver relevant advertising. I do believe there is a happy medium between these two positions, and I hope the future has more and more powerful privacy controls.

Don’t forget if you have thoughts, throw them in the comments.

(Bonus points if you can identify the obscure mid-90’s TV show I referenced in the title.)

Call Waiting and Privacy

February 23, 2009

The excellent publication Wired had a good article on a new service offered by a company called TelTech systems called TrapCall. The main function of the service is to circumvent the privacy block that can be used on the Caller ID service, so that people can’t see who is calling them.

The interesting thing is that this is a service that is probably not very well known and most commonly used by telemarketers to prevent you from knowing that you are about to get a sales pitch. There are two ways to use this privacy block, first you can dial *67 before the call and use the block only when you would like, or you can have your phone provider put a permanent privacy block on your line so that all calls will come up on Caller ID as private. (There’s actually a bunch of these “star codes” that still work. Check out this site for a bunch more to try, beaware that your phone company could charge you for some of them.)

The way this service works is that as you receive a call you can hit a button on your phone that will forward the call to a toll-free number. Since calls to toll-free numbers are always revealed to Caller ID regardless of the privacy settings, (because the receiver is paying for the call) TrapCall now has the information of who is calling you. They forward this information on to you, and now you know who is calling you and whether to pick up the phone or not.

I have not tried this service myself, but Wired says that it works pretty well. It seems to be a very clever use of technology, and they work on the “freemium” economic model, where the core service is free and you can pay to gain advanced relevant features that may be useful to you.From a technological standpoint, I think that it is a good product that could be successful.

I’m more concerned about the privacy implications. Wired describes the anger of domestic violence groups that are concerned that court-required phone interaction between abusive partners and victims could lead to information about their location being revealed.

My concerns are not nearly so serious, but it seems to me that a person ought to have the right to make a phone call without announcing who it is in advance. Of course, the person on the other end of the phone has the right not to answer the call. By taking away the rights of the parties involved, situations like the ones described by Wired can arise.

Thanks to my colleague Steve for pointing this story out to me.

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Facebook Friends Closer

November 29, 2008

During this holiday season when (hopefully) we are in the company of our friends and family, it might be a good time to double-check that your friends on your social networking sites really are the friends you think they are.

ComputerWorld columnist Mike Elgan has an eye-opening piece on how the people who claim to be your friend could very easily just be pretending to be someone that you know.

In principle, it is a very simple scam, for those people who are on multiple social networking sites. Basically, a person puts out some arbitrary friend requests just to start gaining access to information. This is actually the weakest part of this chain of lies. If you never accept requests from people you don’t know, and encourage your friends to do likewise, a lot less of this data will get out. However, there are people who will be friends with anyone who asks them, so you have to assume that some of your friends could have shady friends.

Next, the scammer will grab data from one site and create an identical profile on the other using the information they have already gathered. Since there is no way to differentiate between your real friend on Myspace and the scammer on Facebook who has all the Myspace data, you accept them as a friend.

This is where the real danger comes in, because the scammer now has access to you. You think they are your friend, but really they are waiting in Nigeria for you to send them some money to “bail them out of prison” or any number of very scary scenarios.

The real defense for these types of scams are the most fundamental things to keep in mind wherever you go on the internet.

1. Be very careful about what data you are putting out for other people to get.

2. Verify everything before you send money to anybody, anywhere, especially Nigeria. 🙂

3. It might be a good idea to call your friend up before meeting them alone at a bar somewhere.

As always, be safe and be smart online.