Does business still value privacy online

One of the many very public issues that continue to dominate blogs, twitter, Facebook updates, newspapers, and government senators and regulators time is the failure to value consumer’s privacy. It seems that it is sometimes a mixture of commercial benefit and commercial advantage in some of the recent shift of companies towards anti-privacy and riches for shareholders.  The point around social media is that is growing more hostile and it seems that many businesses are started to fight with consumers rather than addressing the issue that is causing the outcry.  If just a few people notice the problem but it affects millions or hundreds of millions of users/members it should not be ranked as a low priority for a company, social media should highlight issues and give the company advanced warning of the incoming storm.

Privacy is one issue that is not taking a back seat and it seems a number of companies are working towards their third strike in their failure to build safeguards into the software prior to opening users/members social networks and data to the outside world.  Google is featured twice in this blog post the first is around their Buzz platform that was released without many of the safe guards usually built into Google products and managed to hit all the wrong notes with much of the tech crowd. It was not the usually suspects who complained about Google Buzz’s lack of commonsense and ability to censor or control what information was shared or made public such as contacts/friends .

Buzz Privacy Issues This feature was released on those using the free Gmail platform but was held back from the Premier Apps uses due to concerns about privacy and its effect on paid users as it was not yet fully tested and reliable. It is understandable that sometimes a technician may get overly excited in deploying new features but loss of consumer privacy should raise internal warning bells. Instead of the Buzz feature being paused it was gradually updated to include some of the many requested privacy features but still has a number of issues to address. Buzz still seems to be a product that has a long way to go to build back users trust but one that Google will continue to expand into other products until you can’t avoid using it.

Google Streetview Privacy Issues
The second Google privacy issue was only recently discovered in Germany and is an issue that has lay dormant for a number of years, further compounding the issues of a lax view of consumer privacy. The Google Street view team caught recording users MAC Addresses, SSIDs, residents browsing records and possible much more as part of their global program to map and photograph every house and building. This has caused problem in the past with military bases captured, private property invaded and now it seems big brother is confirming you live where you say you did on your personal profile.

Some security experts said that some of the data that could have been collected included emails and even passwords. Google is said to be in contact with regulators in the countries where it has been capturing data over the past several years. The claim is that none of this data has been used yet but was it part of something planned or would disclosure that it had used the data lead to more problems? This type of issue is a concern because it was flagged much later in the process and might have gone unnoticed until Google released a product based on this data if it wasn’t picked up when the German government raised concerns that led Google to a internal audit.

Selling consumer data
MasterCard selling consumer data that it has built up over the years as part of its business intelligence service, that enables large marketers and business to know everything about you before you buy which doesn’t seem right considering they are also charging consumers/banks to use their payment system.

Forced open exchange for social networks
Facebook forcing open exchange with the aggressive but staged removal of many privacy features it sold initially as a key element of the service. Recently Facebook had removed the ability for profiles to keep private what groups/pages they were associated with which seemed to be a partial step before last months change to an open platform.

The users profile data that contained items of interest which was linked to a search that enabled you to find other Facebook users that had the same interest. It seemed that this fragmented model made it more difficult for advertisers to target as you could like “Movies” or “Films” which is technically the same activity/interest but would require advertisers to target both keywords. This targeting could be further complicated as users often used a mixture of singular and plural versions.

Facebook Ads

Facebook overcame this problem with its recent conversion of this profile data to a Wikipedia style “like” page that made for more targetable and refined profile pages for advertisers, with less options for Facebook users. The problem around the new automate “like” is that this information from these pages is now feed into your Facebook news feed and it is also publically visible.

Some of the steps required to maintain your privacy required a number of extensive steps such as removing all likes/interests from your profile page, ensuring your page is not index by search engines but also you change your date of birth to be under the age of 18. This change combined with other restrictive settings made your profile almost invisible outside your network of friends . The one problem is that Facebook actually flags these users who have set their privacy settings high with a different message that almost confirms they are a member by message along the lines of they maybe on Facebook but cannot be found via email due to privacy settings. This is a vastly different message if they are not a member, as it prompts you to invite them, I tried to get a screenshot of this, but it has to be generated via an account who has never been a friend.

There is a negative side effect for Facebook as Danny from SEL pointed out one of the top suggested terms on Google was “how do i delete my facebook account“, and Facebook groups calling for a June 15 Delete my Facebook account day.  The update appears to be that Facebook is rolling in some privacy features that address some of the issues, but based on past behaviour its a matter of time before they revoke these privacy features and go back down the path of evil….

Your ISP onsells your data
Your ISP is selling your browsing habits to the highest bidder as part of what started as a small side business has turned into a billion dollar consumer intelligence business. Most business uses some type of web analytics package that enables you to see details such as what site drove you to their site or what keywords you used on the search engine to find them. The difficulty that business faces is that they don’t usually know what you visited after you left but there are a number of ways that data is available for the right price. Market intelligence companies such as Hit Wise are able to provide much more detailed information on your site, your competitors or industry vertical. The reports offer an overall list of what were the sites visited prior and after as well a mass of other data points that can help business but this privacy violation is most likely covered by the agreement you signed with your ISP.

Photocopies keep records of everything you print/copy
Photocopiers typically contain a hard-drive that capturers a majority of the documents scanned or printed from the device for various reasons. While it is advertised in the fine print by manufactures the extra costs to protect consumer privacy seems too high for managers who often make the decision not to address the issue and just hope its not discovered while they are working there when purchasing a new photocopier. The problem is that this issue is not limited to small business as it extends up to government departments who should take more care with their private data.

Business benefits from no unsubscribe option
Diesel fails email marketing by failing to use unsubscribe features provided by eCircle, but it is likely that this problem is not unique to Diesel as business often tries to customise software internally to save money. There is a financial benefit for business in not letting consumers easily unsubscribe but long term it can be very damaging to their brand and reputation. The problem is that many of these decisions are made by marketing managers who typically only see 18-36 months ahead and by then they plan to move on before the activity comes back to haunt them.

It pays business to spam consumers
You can buy software to crawl websites to capture postal, email and phone details for resell to marketing firms, who can then clean the data and add more data points before on selling to agencies and companies to target. This problem is not unique to websites, but can also be sourced from blogs who fail to use an effective comment management solution or even sold by blog owners. It is alarming to discover which big companies and agencies actually request to have this type of activity built into a marketing strategy. The issue for consumers and regulators is the lack of concern with the likely fallout as the spam fines are much smaller than the profit they will make on the activity as they get paid on numbers. So while consumer data continues to be more valuable when exploited than when protected don’t expect your details to stay private forever.

Facebook Profile Research
Companies and marketers can easily and are starting to explore how to crawl your Facebook profile for research and analysis of consumer behaviour and understand friend networks to identify social influencers and early adopters. Some of this activity has been stopped by Facebook through legal action but the ease at which it can be done should alarm consumers.

Twitter Timeline
Your Twitter timeline is indexed and available for companies and marketers to search and profile forever. To further compound the issue software can be used to search this data and then the data can be mined to show much more detail and even relationships between those who selectively RT based on company or keyword. While twitter does offer the ability for preferences such as protected profiles such as shown below for @BillClinton , which cannot be retweeted or read without the users permission it doesn’t stop the whole problem. Twitter revolves around responses which if the original tweet is not visible may be read out of context or exposed to a larger audience if someone following you responds. As David Olsen also pointed out protected tweets can be ReTweeted but applications like TweetDeck warn you that if it is a protected account, which can save some mistakes by your followers.

Protected Twitter Page
This issue was brought to light when an Australian young liberal made the mistake of taking a swipe at US President Obama calling him a Monkey on Twitter. The response did not address the privacy issues it just resulted in death threats, the Australian Liberal party revoking his party membership and Twitter closing his account down. While the issue highlights the problems with limited consumer privacy within social media the heavy handed approach highlights a bigger issue of censorship by commercial entities.

Social Media data can be mined
The Twitter and Facebook data can be used to track who was the original whistle blower or which consumer inflamed the problem for the company. This appears to be happening currently with P&G who are spending significant resources tracking who is claiming their product causes rashes than resolving the social media issues. The problem of consumer privacy is also addressed with employers and even college administrators mining Facebook data to profile if the candidate is suitable or matches their ideal model citizen. The problem is that much of this invasion of consumer privacy goes unreported as candidates will just been advised they did not qualify or succeed and it will not be explained that it was due to their social media footprint.

Companies need to think of users long term
As these companies user base continues to grow they need to be starting to think more long term how this may affect their users and not just what advertisers are asking for or being a defector censorship force. All these matters just continue to build and grow but it seems the fact that they occurred so easily and the speed at which they are being solved is much slower than the initial update that affected the users privacy settings.

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