We’ve been hearing about privacy being “dead” for a long time now from people like Sun's Scott McNealy (in 2000), Google’s Eric Schmidt (in 2009), and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (in 2010).
Can all these important people be wrong? Let’s hope so.
There is an interesting progression of companies here. Sun’s (RIP) business was strongly linked to the growth of the Internet, specifically on the hardware side, and it laid the groundwork for many other Web-based businesses. Google and Facebook are among the new breed of companies with Internet-based business models, which are centered on gathering, analyzing, and allowing easy access to information of all kinds -- public and, as it turns out, private, too.
Both Google and Facebook also have practices their users find unsettling. Facebook, for example, frequently changes its Terms of Service. Some users seem to be concerned about content ownership and find Facebook’s privacy settings hard to follow.
Many other companies apply techniques to mine data about their subscriber bases, so such business models are not brand new. In many cases, data mining leads to improved functioning of the business. But there is a fine line here, which is (knowingly?) crossed by many companies when they sell subscribers’ private information to third parties, even in ways that make their users easily identifiable.
Being public with certain things and staying private about others should be a choice individuals make. The Internet somehow made us more lax in this regard. Most of us would not give out personal phone numbers of our relatives and friends to random phone solicitors, but we’ll give up an email address. And we’re even less concerned about advertisers being able to access our networks of family, friends, and coworkers via a social networking site.
On the Internet, companies can use computer power to capture and analyze private information. Individual customers also can apply some extra computer cycles to gain back their own privacy. There is also PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and similar encryption software for securing communications. For financial information, like credit card numbers, we readily use HTTPS email communications. And now, there are choices such as Diaspora (invitation-only alpha), and the technically inclined can use Diaspora sources on Github to control and secure their social networking “life.” Twice oversubscribed at the funding site kickstarter.com, the Diaspora project is certainly gaining visibility.
Of course, only time will tell if a late joiner like Diaspora can become a major player in the already crowded social network space. But here’s the good news: On the Internet, it is relatively easy for customers to vote with their mouse and switch service providers if feeling mistreated.
— Gábor Lipták has worked as an IT consultant and architect for various enterprises.