How privacy vanishes online

Using bits of data from social-networking web sites, researchers have gleaned people’s names, ages, and even Social Security numbers, reports the New York Times—raising concerns that people are doling out too much personal information on the internet. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr are oceans of personal minutiae, such as birthday greetings sent and received, school and work gossip, photos of family vacations, and movies watched. Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number. “Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division. “You can find out who an individual is without it.” So far, this type of powerful data mining, which relies on sophisticated statistical correlations, is mostly in the realm of university researchers, not identity thieves and marketers. But the FTC is worried that rules to protect privacy have not kept up with technology. The agency is convening the third of three workshops on the issue on March 17…

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Why no one cares about privacy anymore

Google co-founder Sergey Brin adores the company’s social network called Google Buzz, CNet reports. We know this because an engineer working five feet from Brin used Google Buzz to say so. “I just finished eating dinner with Sergey and four other Buzz engineers in one of Google’s cafes,” engineer John Costigan wrote a day after the Twitter-and-Facebook-esque service was announced. “He was particularly impressed with the smooth launch and the great media response it generated.” You might call Brin’s enthusiasm premature, especially since privacy criticisms prompted Google to make a series of quick changes a few days later. Activists have asked the Federal Trade Commission to “compel” Google to reprogram Buzz a third time to adhere to the no doubt well-informed specifications of Beltway lawyers. A class action lawsuit filed on behalf of an aggrieved second-year law student is underway. But a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse: relatively few Google Buzz users seem to mind. Within four days of its launch, millions of people proved Brin right by using the messaging service to publish 9 million posts. A backlash to the backlash developed, with more thoughtful commentators pointing out that Google Buzz disclosed your “followers” and who you were “following” only if you had elected to publish that information publicly on your Google profile in the first place…

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Redrawing the route to online privacy

On the internet, things get old fast. One prime candidate for the digital dustbin, it seems, is the current approach to protecting privacy on the internet, according to the New York Times. It is an artifact of the 1990s, intended as a light-touch policy to nurture innovation in an emerging industry. And its central concept is “notice and choice,” in which web sites post notices of their privacy policies and users can then make choices about sites they frequent and the levels of privacy they prefer. But policy and privacy experts agree that the relentless rise of internet data harvesting has overrun the old approach of using lengthy written notices to safeguard privacy. These statements are rarely read, are often confusing and can’t hope to capture the complexity of modern data-handling practices. As a result, experts say, consumers typically have little meaningful choice about the online use of their personal information — whether their birth dates, addresses, credit card numbers or web-browsing habits.

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Site asks social networkers to rethink revelations

Frequent updates on web sites like Twitter could make users vulnerable.
Frequent updates on web sites like Twitter could make users vulnerable.

As more people reveal their whereabouts on social networks, a new site has sprung up to remind students and others that letting everyone know where you are — and, by extension, where you’re not — could leave you vulnerable to those with less-than-friendly intentions. The site’s name says it all: Please Rob Me.

Launched last week, Please Rob Me is exceptionally straightforward. Pretty much all it does is show posts that appear on Twitter from a location-sharing service, Foursquare, that has become popular on college campuses. Please Rob Me puts these posts into a long, chronological list it refers to as ”Recent Empty Homes.”

Please Rob Me assembles its list by taking information that Twitter makes freely available so that many web sites can show tweets. But the point of Please Rob Me could be made with data that flows on dozens of other sites as well.…Read More

Facebook faces flak over privacy changes

Facebook's updated privacy policy has attracted national attention.
Facebook's updated privacy policy has attracted national attention.

A Washington, D.C.-based privacy advocacy group and nine other organizations have filed a complaint against Facebook over the online social network’s latest privacy changes.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said it has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to look into the changes Facebook has made to its users’ privacy settings and to force Facebook to restore its old privacy safeguards. The changes, unveiled last week, include treating users’ names, profile photo, friends list, gender, and other data as publicly available information.

The complaint says the changes diminish user privacy by disclosing personal information to the public that was previously restricted. (See “How to protect your privacy on Facebook.”)…Read More

How to protect your privacy on Facebook

Keeping information private on Facebook is easy if you follow several steps.
Keeping information private on Facebook is possible if you follow several steps.

Over the past week, Facebook has been nudging its users to review and update their privacy settings. The site has given users many granular controls over their privacy, more than what’s available on other major social networks. Still, in updating their privacy settings, several users might have made more information about themselves public than what they had intended.

If you want to stay out of people’s view, but still want to be on Facebook, here are some things to look out for as you take another look at your settings. (See “Facebook faces flak over privacy changes.”)

1. Some of your information is viewable by everyone.…Read More