Facebook’s new offerings

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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This morning I logged onto Facebook and found a message up there at the top of the page. This message was telling me that I can connect with my friends on my favourite websites. Ooh, I thought, lucky me.

Right there in the box is a link that I can click on in order to learn more, and understand my privacy. So I clicked. I learnt that I can expect to see a “Like” button on various sites that I can click on to share the site with my friends. The site gets no information about me. This can be quite useful to people who like to post links to sites they think other people might like to see and I can’t see any privacy issues here.

The other thing they mention is something about partner sites, including Microsoft Docs. From what I can glean, this is to be a service that competes with Google Docs. You can create documents and share them with your Facebook friends in much the same way that you share photos. So where’s the privacy issue? It says on the Facebook site, “You can easily opt-out of experiencing this on these sites by clicking here or clicking “No Thanks” on the blue Facebook notification on the top of partner sites”. So far so good. But, it goes on: “If you opt-out, your public Facebook information can still be shared by your friends to these partner sites unless you block the application.” What does this mean? What is “the application”?

I did some digging and found out that I can block the Facebook application, Docs. I didn’t install it. Why should I have to block it in order to prevent it from getting information from me?

I think there are three things to note here:

  1. This is actually normal Facebook app behaviour. They all try to get information about our friends from us.  You should check how much of your profile is public, because you have no control over the apps your friends install.
  2. I don’t like the opt out option. Surely it should be opt in? Shouldn’t it always be opt in?
  3. How long before someone creates a personal doc and shares it with the world? And when they do, is it their fault for not reading the manual properly?

Location, location, location

April 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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I just read about yet another location-based service. This one is called Glympse, and it looks very cool. The privacy issues with location=-based services are so blatant and manifold. What is also clear is that users are concerned about their privacy, and so Glympse goes to great lengths to assure us that we have nothing to worry about.

The way it works is that you send a “glympse” to someone, or a group of people, or all of your Facebook friends. They receive a link. When they click on that link, they can see a map with your location on it. If you are moving, they can see that too. If two people send each other glympses on their phones, then I guess they should be able to walk in each other’s direction until they find each other.

The people at Glympse have built privacy into this app in a number of ways. One is that you can define how long you want to be visible to system for. The default is 15 minutes; the maximum is 4 hours. Another is that you decide who can see your location.

I think this is an example of how a company is showing awareness of the privacy needs or wishes of its potential end users, and is designing privacy into what is clearly a privacy-threatening application.

Using existing CCTV cameras for crime prevention?

April 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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I read this morning that the Israel Police want to hook up existing CCTV cameras in businesses in Tel Aviv to a central police observation station. Let’s admit it – this is a very clever idea. Instead of buying all the equipment yourself, just use someone else’s. On second thought, though, aren’t most businesses CCTV cameras pointed at their shelves of goods to prevent people stealing? Are many of them pointed at the street at all? Either way, that’s not really the point (also because the plan includes CCTV cameras owned by the municipality and public buildings).

The point is that Tel Aviv is joining that growing list of cities with extensive CCTV camera coverage. The police say that it will give them another set of eyes wherever there is an event going on. A consequence of this is not that we (people like me who live in and around Tel Aviv) will be filmed in more places, but rather that the police will be able to access these images in real time across the city. Also, the police will be able to store these images indefinitely, which businesses may not do for more than a day or two. There’s no word in that article as to whether they intend to do that or not.

But the part of the police’s plan that is most worrying for anyone concerned about privacy is their stated wish that anyone wishing to install a camera in his or her business will be legally required to put it online and make it accessible by the police. I have no idea whether this will become law, but it’s a pretty radical idea.

Privacy and democracy

April 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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If you ask people why privacy is important – which is exactly what I have been doing as part of a research project I’m working on – one of the answers you sometimes hear is that it is crucial for the sustenance of democracy. At the most basic level, our votes in elections are private, but the people with whom I’ve been talking mean more than this. What they mean is that the kind of personhood, or selfhood, that democracies envisage is one that requires privacy. Having privacy enables you to be yourself, to express yourself anonymously if you want to, to experiment, to be creative, to nurture your own personality… For this reason, they say, privacy is important, and it is essential that we safeguard it as a human right.

For me, though, this raises a question about the historicity of privacy as a value. Is privacy now important because we live in democracies? What about people who do not live in a democracy? We can be sure that they enjoy less privacy than those in the democratic west, but does the absence of democracy mean that privacy is no longer to be considered important in relation to those people? Or are we to understand that privacy is important to all human beings irrespective of their country’s political regime and that the privacy of all people is to be safeguarded no matter when and where they live? I find this kind of statement hard to endorse. The notion of privacy I mentioned above is a distinctly modern one. I suggest that it would make little sense to apply it to a farmer in 14th century England, for instance.

So there is an interesting tension here between privacy as a purportedly fundamental right that enables the full and free expression of our selves, and privacy as a value with a historical, social and cultural context. This is a tension I shall explore more in future posts.

Location-based social networks: Do we understand them? And whose fault is it if we don’t?

April 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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In an interesting post on ReadWriteWeb.com (Location-Based Social Networks: Delightful, Dangerous or Somewhere in Between?), some questions are posed about location-based social networks. To me it seems perfectly obvious that if I’m out meeting someone somewhere in town, or at the beach, I should be able to ping him with a location request, at which point he should be able to ping me back. At that point, my phone should just lead me to my friend, even if he is moving. (I know that echoecho for the iPhone does something like that, but last time I checked the maps for Israel were just blank…)

There are clearly privacy issues here, but they should be dealt with by the right kind of opt-in agreements.

However, what about the issues that arise because people don’t know what they are doing? Towards the end of the blog I linked to above, the questions is asked whether the average computer/mobile phone user is

capable of using mobile social networks properly in ways that won’t put them at risk? Or will they add friends willy-nilly, broadcast their every move then be stunned when something bad happens?

So my question is: whose responsibility is this? What are we meant to do with technologies that can seriously impact on our privacy, but mostly because we don’t use them properly? Or because we didn’t read the instructions? Should people be protected from their ignorance? Or should we call it laziness? I haven’t made up my mind on this yet.