Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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BeingToldWhatWeWantToHear?

-- By AlejandroMercado - 25 Mar 2012

Introduction

Lies. They’re all damn lies. Government and private sector efforts to better protect our privacy interests are more of a fašade to appease an increasingly concerned citizenry. But their focus is misplaced. The White House’s “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” (CPBR), for example, is the most recent example of the futility of having the government address our privacy concerns. From it, the administration’s debacle over which party to favor – e.g. the American public or the American enterprise – is easily perceived. On the other hand, who can truly believe Google’s willingness to “compromise” the very essence of their business by allowing, for example, a DoNotTrack button on its browser so that users may select to avoid or limit its tracking them? Such a concession should only prompt us to ask ourselves, where is the backdoor we are not being told of? Truth is, the proper focus should be that if technology is the cause of the problem, technology should provide the solution.

In Whose Favor?

Straight out, the White House’s CPBR states that individuals have the right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it. But what seems to be an absolute right, immediately turns ambiguous by calling for the CPBR to be sufficiently flexible to allow for the private sector to foster innovation. In so doing, it requires companies to provide consumers with “appropriate choices” about what personal data they will collect on the individual. Sounds to me like assured destruction, only that we are allowed to choose the method of death.

Moreover, the CPBR is clearly elusive of its dubious effectiveness by providing that even if Congress does not pass legislation, the CPBR will at least “serve as a template for privacy protections that increase consumer trust on the Internet and promote innovation”. If the government is truly interested in protecting the privacy of its citizenry, it should provide funding to support the development of better technology for said purposes, instead of writing out idealistic rights that only look good on paper.

Besides, recent case law provides disappointing testimony of the government’s prior involvement and attempts to address these types of issues in our favor. Generally, to this date none of the internet-privacy related claims based on existing laws that relate to electronic communications have been met with success. That is, for example, claims of unlawful taking of private data under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or divulging of electronic communications under the Stored Communications Act. Thus, raising doubts as to the continued existence of such statutory provisions.

Still, notwithstanding the above, it is also fair for us to ask ourselves, which is our goal exactly? After all, information is the engine of our economy. Do we want to prevent companies from using our information for their own market research and product development? Probably not, inasmuch as such type of use of our information drives innovation to a great extent. What is certain is that the line must be drawn somewhere where our information is not sold like a commodity in a market exchange, where individuals have truthful and/or realistic control over their information and how it is used.

Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies...

On the other hand, companies like Google and Facebook WANT to track us. That IS the essence of their business and what runs their revenue model. The Internet makes it easier for them, and so they are heavily dependent on computer technology to follow us down the very details of our private life to sustain their bottom line. Thus, no matter how much revamping is done to their privacy policies, they are most likely patches for purposes of appearance in the eyes of the public.

Such an argument can be sustained through Google’s more recent tweaks to its privacy policy. Beginning on March 1, 2012, Google now consolidates all of the tracking data it keeps on each of its users across its services under one universal profile. Needless to say, this is following their stated willingness on February to incorporate a “Do Not Track Button” in its browser. Sadly enough, its spokespeople tried to make it seem as if through these changes to its privacy policy the company is somehow being “less intrusive”. But, just as an effective tool to prevent Google from tracking its users would only negatively affect its ad revenues, a “less intrusive” privacy policy would only translate into fewer profits. Such behavior on Google’s part is highly dubious.

Facebook is not deserving of our trust either. What better example to prove it than the recent acknowledgement that it has scraped out the word “privacy” from its policy, and now dubs it its “data use” policy. And, notwithstanding a settlement with the FTC late last year over charges of deceiving users and failing to keep their information private, such settlement has not prevented Facebook from employing methods that continue to exploit such type of information. Accordingly, we can’t possibly trust companies the likes of Google and Facebook to guarantee individuals complete privacy.

Conclusion

In a perfect world, users would be recognized a proprietary claim over their information and be allowed to raise a claim over its misappropriation. However, for the time being, individuals are best served by taking preventive measures through the use of technology available from truthful privacy advocates and by adopting new habits.

With respect to habits, for example, we could employ the method of lying. If they lie, we can lie too. Although such behavior would not hide the searches, web history or IP address, it could help alter the profile of an individual through the use of a fictional character. And who knows, maybe it’s possible that if we fill Google’s databases with enough false information it will tone down its efforts to collect our information.

What’s essential is for us to take our faith off of the government and companies who work against, rather than in favor, of our privacy interests.


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