Private Issues

In a recent post on ViralRead, I listed five technology issues that will be hot-buttons in the next six to eight months.  Privacy was at the top of the list.

The NSA/PRISM revelations have exposed that Federal authorities can pull information from technology companies.  For many Americans, the concept of a little surveillance in exchange for thwarted attacks is a fair trade.  Hammering the Obama Administration on the facts of this “scandal” likely won’t be a long-term political winner, and the Administration can’t scale back terrorism investigations while blood still stains the sidewalks in Boston.

And here’s a dose of reality: the “personal” information that the government was getting from the likes of Facebook and Google?  It’s information that people volunteered.  Google doesn’t know anything about you until you search for “Winged Monkeys in Chaps” – even if you’re totally only looking it up for a friend.  Facebook only has pictures of your kids when you upload them.  Your cell phone only triangulates your location via GPS after you buy the phone.  These creature comforts may seem difficult to live without, so we buy the products, use the services, and participate in the networks.  We should understand there are consequences to giving our data to a third party.  It’s not bad that we do it, but we need to be careful.

It is a short jump, though, from “Wow, look at all the stuff the NSA got from Facebook!” to “Hey, why does Facebook have all this stuff in the first place?”  Suddenly, tech companies are the easy bad guys.

This possibility is a likely reason Google is fighting to tell everyone what they forked over to the NSA.

While you were sleeping…

There hasn’t been any political news in about a week, since most of the pundits on the left and right have been shamelessly and wrongly hammering each other over an atrocity in Arizona that had nothing to do with politics.

Meanwhile, there are some actual political issues going on.  Did you know the Obama Administration is set to authorize the Commerce Department to regulate an online identification system?  It’s not the National ID Card that has been proposed in the past – the current plan sounds like an opt-in system, like an enhanced version of Facebook Connect or Twitter’s @Anywhere.  Anonymous blog posting and other fun parts of the internet would theoretically remain unchanged.

Not to sound conspiratorial, but things like this almost never wind up being implemented in the same way they were drawn up.  Scrutiny and review would be absolutely necessary.

So, if you’re done with the mindless drivel and demagoguery as politicians climb all over themselves to find a way to make last Saturday’s shooting all about them, there’s work to be done.


RapLeaf and opposition research

This week, the Wall Street Journal discussed just how fine online targeting companies can get thanks to online behavioral targeting companies like RapLeaf.  For what it’s worth, RapLeaf seems to make a good faith effort to keep certain personally identifiable information private, but that’s a little like putting toothpaste back in a tube.

So here’s an interesting hypothetical: does this become part of campaign opposition research?

Obviously, a campaign couldn’t call up RapLeaf for a file on a particular user, but there are other ways to get private records.  Medical records are the best example: one candidate will release full medical records to demonstrate a clean bill of health; if an opponent doesn’t do the same thing, it looks like they have something to hide.

Let’s say a squeaky clean candidate goes to RapLeaf and wants to buy the file they have on him or her.  After a thorough review by the campaign staff, the record is released to the media.  The opponent has to do the same thing, right?

It could be interesting to see where candidates spend their time online.  We as an electorate would be able to peer into the brains behind the names on the ballot.  Sure, we would learn where they get their news, what pundits they read, and what issues are really the most important to them.  But we could also learn how much time they spend playing Farmville, which YouTube videos of windsurfing ostriches they’ve commented on, and whether they’re into midget porn.

In other words, it could offer a treasure trove of embarrassing and/or hilarious moments for the campaigns of tomorrow.

When privacy policies evaporate

Privacy policies be damned, say lawyers looking to make a bankruptcy court liquidate a defunct GLBT website’s membership list of gay and lesbian teenagers.  The users, who presumably signed up thinking their personal information would not be used outside of the site’s terms of service, may find that their identifiable information is treated like an asset and their anonymity is breached.

It makes sense from a bankruptcy lawyer’s perspective: the site is belly up, and that list has value.  Whether or not that value is transferable will be one of the important tech policy issues that needs to be hashed out over the coming years.  It also underscores a pretty important lesson about internet activity: maybe on the internet no one knows you’re a dog, but you have to assume they’ll find out eventually.

Senators make privacy demands to Google

Oh, sorry, that’s Facebook, whose tentacles are constantly expanding throughout the web, but not in Washington.  Sen. Charles Schumer and colleagues have posted an open letter on Facebook’s wall demanding to know just how the social network’s privacy options work.

In the meantime, Google continues to track, store, and process user data from various points in order to build advertising profiles – a practice which raises concerns not only about privacy, but about reach.  In fact, Google’s signature service, search, has a much lower barrier to entry than Facebook’s; while Facebook makes you create an account and is thematically based on the idea of sharing personal information, Google’s search service is open to anyone trackable by IP address.

So why does Facebook get a nasty letter while Google gets a pass?

It may have something to do with the fact that Google spent $1.38 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2010 alone.  More significant than the actual dollars spent is the intellectual investment: Google has clearly made it a priority to be a Washington, DC player on both sides of the aisle.  This level of involvement positions Google as a resource, preventing policymakers from seeing what is an obvious parallel.

How do you like that? Facebook and microtargeting

This was a big week for Facebook, which stepped up its presence in the battle with Google to control the internet on computers.  (This is slightly different from the battle to control the internet through your phone or the internet through your TV or the battle control the internet through the cord surgically affixed to your brain stem.)

By spreading tentacles throughout the web, Facebook will latch your profile more closely to your online activity.  Sure, it’s a little creepy, but it’s also voluntary; no one has to have a Facebook account after all.

Setting aside privacy concerns, this is a really big [BIDEN] deal in a year when political insurgency is all the rage (no pun intended).  In a great post at TechRepublican, Jordan Raynor outlines how establishment political support (such as Florida Governor Charlie Crist enjoyed a few months ago) can be trumped by a campaign which connects directly with supporters and leverages that energy to create its own momentum.

Facebook is going to become a better and better place to do that – providing in 2010 and 2012 what the concept of microtargeting was in 2002 and 2004.  In those years, Republicans used consumer data to identify potential supporters – if you shop at a certain place and subscribe to certain magazines, for instance, you might fit a profile of a Republican voter.

Now, you can profile your supporters (who may or may not belong to your party) and directly serve them online ads.  The possibilities are pretty exciting – unless you’re sick of political ads.

You will be.  You will be.

Twit-story: The Library of Congress vs. Google Replay

The Library of Congress will collect and store the full volume of Twitter for “scholarly and research purposes.” Twitter is psyched because it’s another demonstration of legitimacy:

It is our pleasure to donate access to the entire archive of public Tweets to the Library of Congress for preservation and research. It’s very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history. It should be noted that there are some specifics regarding this arrangement. Only after a six-month delay can the Tweets will be used for internal library use, for non-commercial research, public display by the library itself, and preservation.

As evidenced by events like the Iranian election protests, Twitter users can act as documentarians of history as it happens.  The Library of Congress’s recognition of this is another sign that Twitter has grown up a bit; the timing couldn’t be better, coming just a couple days after they announced their advertising model.

For the vast majority of Twitter’s data, this announcement is really a non-story – after all, there’s nothing stopping anyone from visiting Twitter and accessing all public tweets.  What about accounts that have been deleted, though?  And what about the accounts that get deleted after the Library of Congress makes an official historical record of them?

Buried in Twitter’s blog post is a much “friendlier” strategy for making Tweets a part of history: Google’s Replay service, which allows users to revisit moments in history and watch events unfold through Twitter and other online media.

As with most announcements, the difference lies in the semantics.  Google Replay would pinpoint specific times and issues – in other words, it would gravitate toward tweets which were sent with the idea that they were for public consumption.  The idea of Twitter turning over a hard drive full of information to a government office may be no different in practice or outcome, but it sounds a lot creepier.  Suddenly, you may find yourself perusing your own Twitter feed to see if you have anything to worry about.  A better announcement might have been a joint release by Twitter, Google, and the Library of Congress discussing a way to incorporate publicly broadcast real-time updates into research.  It might have looked like a tool on the Library’s website, powered by Google.

The nature of Twitter makes this a minor issue, but it isn’t the only place that history is recorded in real time.   Facebook and Google Buzz have both incorporated elements to mimic Twitter’s free-flowing stream-of-consciousness format.  That means they’re just as potentially attractive to the Library of Congress as part of the “historical record” – even though their data is decidedly more sensitive.

Freedom of Informa…

Last week, Big Government covered the exposure of US Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin’s personal contact list through Google Buzz.  Though many Gmail users had the same problem, McLaughlin’s personal electronic Rolodex was embarrassing because it contained people potentially affected by the policies he was in charge of.  Because of this, Consumer Watchdog filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

And then the information was gone.  Left in its place are some tough questions about data on government computers – and whether or not that qualifies as government data.  Does Google have to release any data they have on McLuahglin?  He may have deleted his Google Buzz account, but does Google have that information backed up somewhere?

Situations like this make it clear why last week some of the biggest names in technology called on the federal government to establish strict protections on personal data.  They don’t want to be forced to reveal your personal data because then it will become obvious just how much of your data they have.

Do you want your GTV?

Google’s agreement with Sony and Intel to create a new platform for web surfing through television – in context with other recent announcements – continues Google’s efforts to find a way into your living room.

Television remains the top entertainment appliance in the household, but how content reaches that television is changing.  Not only have DVD’s and TiVO made the term “appointment television” obsolete, but the embrace of online video by content providers has greatly threatened cable’s position as the provider of high-quality content.  With web-enabled televisions becoming more prevalent, traditional cable is less important than ever.

Many cable providers are also high-speed internet providers, which is lucky for them.  But Google has been the starting point of the internet for years.  After becoming the top search engine, they created useful tools such as a customized homepage, sharable calendars, and a news aggregator; everything was built with the intention that when you sat down at your computer, Google would be the place you would want to start.  That, of course, makes it easier to collect information on you to better target their ads.

Now that the internet will be accessed more directly through television, Google wants to be your starting point there, too.  Again, all the better to target you for advertising, which is how they get their food money.

This will present some challenges for Google as various pieces of their business come together.   Remember Google’s recent announcement of plans to expand fiber optic broadband access.  That would put Google in charge of your access point to the internet (TV, computer, or Android-enabled smartphone), the pipeline that brings the internet to you (fiber optic network), and the content that you see on the internet (through search results, news aggregators, YouTube videos, Google Books, etc.).  All along the way, Google will be able to build a profile of you – what you look for, what you click on, what you watch, where you shop – and of course show you ads to make that food money.

It’s easy to see why people poke fun at Google by likening it to SkyNet, the ubiquitous and sentient machine network from the Terminator movies.  Good thing that Google isn’t evil… right?