Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Teenage Tracking Systems: do kids have limited privacy rights?

Noticed this article recently on tracking systems that help parents keep tabs on teen drivers. As my friends will confirm, I was trying to put one of these together myself about 12 years ago. I happen to think it might have altered the course of my daughter's life if I could have mated GPS to CDMA or GPRS. And I think anyone who has a teenager will understand the desire to track their travels. But it raises interesting questions (a great way to spark classrooom discussion of privacy). For example, at what point does a person achieve their right to privacy?

Some people will be eager to point out that, legally speaking, in the United States, driving is a privilege and not a right. And no right to privacy exists as to your location when in public. But still, I think some teenagers would be inspired to research this question if you told them they were going to be tracked.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Are People Quitting Google in Droves? Time will tell

After pondering aloud in my last post about consumer attitudes to Google I did a little digging and found this on the "browser blog" at Fortune.com:

Google corners nearly two-thirds of US search market

The latest search market share numbers are in from Hitwise: in the four weeks ended March 31st, Google (GOOG) racked up fully 64.13% of all US searches. That’s up more than 10% since March 2006, and, if trends hold, Google’s share will pass the two thirds mark by August. In the same period, Yahoo (YHOO), Microsoft (MSFT), and Ask (IACI) all lost share. As the old Wall Street hands like to say: “Liquidity begets liquidity.”

Clearly, this is not good news for the search also rans, particularly as it covers a period when all of them made major and costly improvements to their search engines. Ask.com for example, rolled out an impressive local search service in 2006 and also greatly improved its image searching, and yet its share declined nearly a half a point, to a fragile 3.48%, in the course of the year.

Conventional wisdom has long held that Google is vulnerable to vertical attacks, i.e. search engines that carve out category niches. The new Hitwise data suggests, however, that Google is actually gaining influence in valuable verticals...

That post was dated April 11 and Google was at 64.8% by June according to the blog at Hitwise, readable here. I will keep watching these two sites to see if there is any evidence of a prviacy-fear induced slowdown in Google growth. If Google does not pass the 2/3 mark by August, look for Privacy International to claim some credit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Google Brain Implants: Not yet, likely never

You have to love the opening of this recent article about Google, sourced from Reuters, but written up by New Zealand TV:

Most people missed the announcement about how Google Inc. wants to burrow inside your brain and capture your most intimate thoughts. That's because it never happened. But Google, the world leader in web search services, is the focus of mounting paranoia over the scope of its powers as it expands into new advertising formats from online video to radio and TV, while creating dozens of new internet services.

Interestingly the article -- available online here -- quotes two people at Google who work on privacy. A lot of the recent Google/privacy stories, sparked by the Privacy International press release about its interim report, give the impression that nobody at Google bothers with privacy. The NZ story quotes Nicole Wong, "the Google attorney who oversees a team of lawyers who consider privacy and other policy issues that go into the making of each product," and Peter Fleischer, "Google's global privacy counsel."

So it sounds like Google has a lawyer devoted to privacy and another attorney leading a product review team that has privacy as part of its remit. This is clearly not enough for some privacy advocates and so, if I was Google I would very publicly create a job entitled Chief Privacy Officer and then hire someone with a good industry reputation for the post. That might allay the fears of privacy advocates. In the meantime I am keeping a watch out for any surveys that indicate consumers have any privacy fears that are keeping them away from Google.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Actual Interim Privacy Rankings: Is Google really hostile and aggressive?

With so much chatter about the "Google Sucks at Privacy" story put out by Privacy International, I thought it would be useful to provide a link to their source document: interimrankings.pdf . Here's a quote:

We are aware that the decision to place Google at the bottom of the ranking is likely to be controversial, but throughout our research we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google's approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organizations.

I have to say that the use of the word "hostilities" in this context is surprising. I've been involved in some pretty serious privacy and security cases and nobody was accused of hostility in their approach to privacy. For example, I was involved when the Federal Trade Commission brought charges against Eli Lilly for violating privacy. I helped Microsoft comply with certain requirements imposed by the FTC to settle charges arising from security and privacy issues. But hostilities? Here's more:
While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy [my emphasis]. This is in part due to the diversity and specificity of Google's product range and the ability of the company to share extracted data between these tools, and in part it is due to Google's market dominance and the sheer size of its user base. Google's status in the ranking is also due to its aggressive use of invasive or potentially invasive technologies and techniques.

If Google is guilty of "aggressive use of invasive technologies and techniques" where are the regulators and politicians and consumer outrage? Surely Google hasn't bribed them all.
Google's increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user's life and lifestyle choices must in our view be coupled with well defined and mature user controls and an equally mature privacy outlook. Neither of these elements has been demonstrated. Rather, we have witnessed an attitude to privacy within Google that at its most blatant is hostile, and at its most benign is ambivalent. These dynamics do not pervade other major players such as Microsoft or eBay, both of which have made notable improvements to the corporate ethos on privacy issues.

I feel compelled to add a phrase to that last sentence: "after consumer outcry." Microsoft was dragged before the FTC and eBay was heckled by members. I'm not aware of widespread consumer outcry over Google. So, I suggest you read the above-referenced "interim" document and decide for yourself. Note that the report was compiled
...using data derived from public sources (newspaper articles, blog entries, submissions to government inquiries, privacy policies etc), information provided by present and former company staff, technical analysis and interviews with company representatives.

Because the 2007 rankings are a precedent, Privacy International will regard the current report as a consultation report and will establish a broad outreach for two months to ensure that any new and relevant information is taken into account before publishing a full report in September.

Does Privacy International make its case or is it really just trying to force Google into a dialogue by holding out the hopes of a less critical final report?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Privacy Watchdog Tags Google Worst on Web

As you have probably noticed, a UK-based group called Privacy International has ranked Google dead last among a dozen major Internet-based companies in terms of protecting users' privacy: Privacy Watchdog Tags Google Worst on Web.

The sheer size of Google, coupled with the company's ability to share user data between its various subsidiaries, led Privacy International to bestow the [dubious] distinction on the Net's biggest search engine.
This rank ranking might also have had a tiny bit to do with the fact that Privacy International seems to have a really bad relationship with Google. PI is the same organization that put out a press release in 2004 headed "Privacy watchdog vows to bring Gmail to heel." Perhaps not surprising then that PI has not been able to have much of a conversation with Google (which it sued in 16 countries). When PI asserts that Google has an “entrenched hostility to privacy,” one wonders if PI doesn't have an entrenched hostility to Google.

I doubt PI have won any friends within Google with this headline-grabbing "worst of the worst" verdict. Yet one does wonder what exactly Google thinks about privacy. You can get some fascinating insight over at Ray Everett-Church's Privacy Clue.

And I doubt that consumers in general will be avoiding Google in droves because of what PI says. After all, as stated in my last post, consumers are more concerned about “environmental issues, followed by pension and other retirement benefits, and health care.”

Monday, June 11, 2007

In Corporations They Don’t Trust - New York Times

An interesting angle on the privacy debate was revealed in a piece by Paul Brown in the New York Times a couple of days ago. The gist of the piece was that "senior executives really do not have a clue." Brown cited a study in the McKinsey Quarterly, the business journal of McKinsey & Company, that found “a trust gap between consumers and global corporations, as well as a lack of understanding among business leaders about what consumers really expect from companies.” For example, when asked what three concerns would be most important to them over the next five years,

“Executives predicted consumers would put job losses and offshoring first, followed by privacy and data security, and the environment...[whereas]...almost half of the consumers picked environmental issues, followed by pension and other retirement benefits, and health care.”

In other words, CxOs think consumer concern about privacy and data security is greater than it really is. Why would this be, apart from the obvious generalized conclusion that CxOs are out of touch with consumers? I suspect it has something to do with the relentless pressure from security and privacy advocates as well as extensive negative media coverage of security breaches that expose private data. And you might add to that the increasing likelihood that such breaches will be followed by lawsuits, some of which may name CxOs. They may be out of touch with consumers but they are very likely to be in touch with their own self-interests.