Tag Archives: privacy

Google: Don’t Be Evil is Bullshit (Even if They Mean It)

Less than a month after I left Facebook behind for reasons including privacy concerns, Google has announced, fairly and for all to see, changes to it’s privacy policy. We are all used to endless and incomprehensible software licenses; to clicking on ‘Agree’ when we don’t even read what we’re agreeing to. You might want to take a minute to look at this move, though.

You Don’t Think Enough About Data Privacy

Google’s privacy policy changes can be summarised: all their various services will share personal data. It seems innocent enough, but perhaps you should take a look at what that means.

The average Google user has handed a lot of personally-identifying information over to Google:

  1. Google Search: Internet search attempts (what you search for, maintained for at least two years)
  2. Google Search: Internet search results (what you actually clicked on)
  3. Google Search: your web presence (any time you are identified on the web)
  4. Gmail: your email (especially ‘personal’ email, which you might go to lengths to not put through a ‘work’ server)
  5. Android: phone records (usage patterns and other meta-data, if nothing else)
  6. Android and Google Latitude: your physical location
  7. Google Maps and Google Navigation: where you are and where you are going
  8. Google+: personal interactions and friendships

So, the average Android user with a Google account has willingly handed over all this information about themselves. And all this data is analysed, correlated, reported on, and synthesized, ostensibly to better target ads for you.

Don’t Be Evil is Bullshit (Even if They Mean It)

Google has been at the forefront of data search, retention, and analysis for more than a decade. Their web search tool, along with a host of other services, are genuinely useful to a lot of people. They are also genuinely useful to Google, law enforcement, and marketing firms. Your Internet searches, combined with targeted web search, email (especially personal email), phone calls, physical location, and social networking, give Google an incredibly detailed idea of who you are. Their stated reason for this is to target ads to you. However, at the same time, they are gathering, collating, and analysing data about you in a way that was impossible before. They are a potential one-stop shop for marketers (which is their explicit aim), as well as US law enforcement and security services. To say nothing of data leaks, either by intrusion, employee mistake, malice, or the activities of a party that claims the data from Google (the US or UK governments, with their amazing data protection record, immediately spring to mind).

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, if you want privacy, you must be doing something wrong. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Mr. Schmidt said in a CNBC interview in 2009. Much like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Schmidt believes in a future without privacy. That he makes millions of dollars from the private details he wants you to reveal is clearly just a coincidence.

What Can You Do?

If you decide to do something right now, you can remove your search history from Google. The EFF has a how-to that is pretty easy to follow. They also have some ideas on protecting your search privacy which you might find interesting.

You might decide that there is too much data being collected about you altogether. It is difficult to avoid in an increasingly interconnected world, but you could ask yourself if you really get much out of social networking and other sites that you willingly give data to. Remember that if you are not paying for a product (or service) you are the product. Servers, power, and Internet connectivity are not free!

There are some people who will argue the damage is done: the genie is out of the bottle. Yes, once something is on the Internet, it will be available probably forever, one way or another. But we can always limit the ability of corporations, malicious individuals, and government entities to gain further information about who we are and what we do. Turn off the flow of information and they may still know something about you, but the picture becomes much less clear.

The most important thing you can do is: think about what you are doing online, understand what is it that you are offering up, and decide if it is worth the service you receive.

Facebook contacts export

Here’s a quick note about how to get your contact list (emails, phone numbers, maybe more) out of Facebook.

Firstly, Facebook doesn’t let you export. So there’s that.

You can connect Yahoo mail, and/or Hotmail to Facebook. There are pretty straightforward tools on the Yahoo and Hotmail sites to do this. Hotmail will also let you connect to Linkedin, if that’s something that you want to do.

Once you have them in Yahoo or Hotmail, you should be able to export them, right? Wrong. As part of the process, Facebook locks the export ability. You can edit every Yahoo contact to remove the Facebook block, but that’s a lot of manual work. And, despite the Yahoo documentation, just adding contacts to a list does not make them exportable.

But you can install Yahoo Mail and Hotmail on your Android phone (I used my Nook Color, but it’s the same idea). The applications will let you sync users to your local contacts.

Once you have local contacts, you can use the built-in export tool to save them as a single-file vcard.

Copy the vcard to your computer, and now you can import (Linux users: Evolution is way better at this than Thunderbird).

I will come back and clean this up soon, but if you need a way, this worked for me.

Facebook: goodbye, and why

Today is the last day to have a Facebook account that’s not updated to the new timeline layout. Tomorrow, they automatically update everyone, which requires some work from the users to keep privacy settings the same. This all sounds pretty unimportant on Facebook’s site, but some of the UK tabloids aren’t so sure.

The way this change has come down has made me think a lot about privacy and social media. While there’s no doubt that Facebook has changed the way we communicate forever, I’ve decided to delete my account. I was a heavy Facebook user, but the more I think and read about it, the more I think I need to spend more time thinking about it. Everyone should think about what Facebook is, what they do, and consider deleting yours too. Here’s how. And here’s why I’m doing it:

The reaction over the ‘upgrade’ to timeline isn’t about the timeline feature at all. It’s that when we release any information on Facebook (or any other site, for that matter) it no longer belongs to us. We don’t pay Facebook, and they have to make money somehow. We’re all giving them something much more valuable than money: data.

Facebook is building a future without any explicit right to privacy. It is all very good if that’s what you want, but you have to understand: if you are not buying a product, you are the product. Someone has to pay for data centres, equipment, staff, and you certainly don’t get a company rumoured to be worth $100 Billion dollars providing a free service with no plan for profit. Novelist Charlie Stross has a thoughtful piece about that on his blog, which I encourage you to read. Suffice it to say that your holiday pictures, ‘like’ buttons, status updates, and other self-published data are the richest marketing and intelligence gathering resource the world has ever seen.

And just in case you have a Facebook account but ‘don’t use it’: you don’t have to have an active Facebook account to have privacy concerns. Just having an account someone can ‘tag’ in pictures, and other reports is bad, as well. They will grow a history of you that you have no control over (even though, frankly, you have no control over what Facebook does with the information you give them, anyway).

I have a friend who thinks that being on Facebook is like being pregnant. Since he’s on it now, he thinks that there’s no point in going back. His data ‘isn’t important’ because it’s self-screened, and he ‘can’t get it back anyway.’ Well, maybe, but maybe not. It’s never to late to start thinking about what you’re doing, and perhaps decide to make a change. You can stop giving data away; turning over mass amounts about yourself, be it to Google (think about it: web searches, IM, email, calendar, phone records, and their own social network — they know all about you), Twitter (yes, they can track you in 140 characters — it’s probably actually easier), or Facebook (the most obviously uncaring of the club, and also the most powerful) is probably unwise, but should we try to do something about it?

I am, at least until I’m done thinking about it. The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. You should at least think about what you’re doing, too.