New policy could jeopardize online privacy

Rui Shi

Two weeks ago, Google announced a new, controversial privacy policy that will consolidate all 60 existing policies. This announcement sparked criticism from both users and policymakers, including Julie Brill of the Federal Trade Commission, who believes that companies should not change user privacy settings without getting their approval.

The increase in user-generated web content has refined the exchange of information. But as a result, the information people share on the web is becoming more critical to their real-life definitions. The smallest details of a person’s life are being shared online for the sake of convenience; yet, many don’t know just how much personal information is on the Internet and how that information is
being used.

In the digital age, it is trivial to collect and save data. For example, when a user deletes a post or photo on Facebook, that piece of information does not go into the virtual abyss. Rather, it is kept by Facebook. Likewise, Gmail retains a user’s deleted emails for 60 days. This creates a dangerous situation in which Google and Facebook are free to do what they want with user data that are voluntarily given to them.

Most college students looking for jobs have heard of some amazing applicant being rejected because of a late night party photo. However, this is the least of a social networker’s worries. Lori Andrews, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College, explained the ramifications of online data collection in an essay for The New York Times: “Material mined online has been used against people battling for child custody or defending themselves in criminal cases. LexisNexis has a product called Accurint for Law Enforcement, which gives government agents information about what people do on social networks. The Internal Revenue Service searches Facebook and MySpace for evidence of tax evaders’ income and whereabouts, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has been known to scrutinize photos and posts to confirm family relationships or weed out sham marriages.”

One way that data is mined is through cookies. These cookies exchange information between a user’s computer and websites to store information about browsing history. More than half of the web’s most popular sites use cookies, and 18.5 percent of all websites use persistent cookies, which can be stored for years. Another type of cookie, known as third-party cookies, is placed by advertisers and marketers to track browsing information through other websites.

Records show that one in every 10 people in the United States have had their identity stolen. More than 35 million data records were compromised in corporate and government data breaches in 2008. Five million people’s social security numbers can be accurately predicted using online data. Phishing has cost U.S. consumers $1.2 billion. These numbers are certainly alarming as they paint a bleak picture of the current state of personal data security.

Facebook and Google are businesses. They have no real incentive to protect users’ privacy, and they make money by selling user data to advertising companies.

Granted, neither Facebook nor Google want their users’ data to be stolen. Their products have greatly changed the Internet by providing a list of services that people want to use, and they mine user data to improve those services. Yet the constant cycle of privacy violations followed by insincere apologies show that privacy is not a top priority. How comfortable are you knowing that all your personal data are being hoarded by various companies?

Federal lawsuits against social networking companies have shown that Internet privacy matters to users. Companies, however, do not provide a clear picture of how they are using data, and they need to be more transparent. In addition, users must be more aware of the policies of the websites they use.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.