Online privacy reminder: You don’t have much

This quick read from the New York Times is a great reminder that your seemingly private online information isn’t all that private. While law enforcement can obtain a search warrant for even your home or business with probable cause [meaning there’s reason to suspect there’s evidence related to a crime], it’s apparently not all that difficult for it to subpoena [different from a search warrant] vast amounts of your online information, like email, social network account information and other online records.

I’m NOT a lawyer, but subpoenas and search warrants both require contact with a judge/judicial authority, to my understanding. But given continued evidence at how these tools are being used by law enforcement in some recent high-profile cases, it seems to me that even information like your search history could be easily obtained and used against you in court. Of course, if you’re just roaming perfectly legal and acceptable websites like, this should be of no concern to you. However, it is still quite concerning that your data can be accessed so easily.

Just imagine the line of questioning as the D.A. reads out your list of search terms related to WikiLeaks, Al Qaeda and terrorism. Ever go back and look at your search history? If you’re a heavy computer user, out of context, your search history probably makes you sound crazy, dangerous or both. I tend to look up any term or concept I hear about in the news, just to see the other information available on the topic. This is the kind of information — our stream-of-thought — that has been previously unavailable to law enforcement. And in a culture that breeds fear, I don’t want to have to answer for my search terms to a jury. Do you?

Topics from Junior League of Nashville training, 4/29/2010

Today at lunch and again this evening, I’m speaking to members of the Junior League of Nashville about managing your online identity. Because the audience is going to be very diverse in age range and current technology adoption, most of our discussion is likely to be Q&A around the topics of online identity and privacy, and on the flip side, taking full advantage of social media for personal or business reasons.

We’re going to use these links as our jumping-off points. I’ll report back tomorrow on how it goes!

In case you weren’t scared already….

The Motrin Moms debacle

Oversharing and location awareness

Kevin Colvin, busted for his Halloween partying

Most of us have been guilty of sending angry emails.

Managing your online identity

Everything you want to know about online privacy

Managing your privacy on Facebook

Get started with Twitter

Share photos: Flickr and Picasa

Share videos: YouTube and Vimeo

Location services: Foursquare and Gowalla

Special cases

Teaching your kids about media

This study matters

In a recent post, I was considering online privacy and data gathering. Today, a study came out on those topics — and the results aren’t good for advertisers or laissez-faire thinkers. But they may enable us to begin re-thinking the promise of the internet.

The New York Times does a nice writeup on the study, including a prominent link to the study [PDF, 411 KB] in the first graph. Way to use the internet. [It’s a shame I have to compliment the paper on that, but most publications don’t use links correctly or even at all, so let’s give props where they’re due.]

The study, conducted by professors from Penn and UC Berkeley, demonstrates what I’ve long believed to be true: People hate being tracked online. It makes them nervous. And they have no idea how the information is used, even when the use of the information is helpful to them.

Note I didn’t say that targeted advertising in particular is helpful. That’s one of the most common uses of personal data today. While targeted advertising does influence purchasing, people still don’t like the idea of it [as this survey demonstrates].

Now, I’m going to say something a little crazy here. Right now, the Internet is dominated by corporate interests. It is a marketing vehicle. Even in places where you believe yourself to be in control of your information, you are likely feeding a corporation’s self-interest. [Facebook, anyone?]

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I continue to believe the Internet is a force for good, on the whole. But I also believe its full promise isn’t even close to being realized.

Doc Searls wrote an important post over the weekend, talking about the promise of the internet, and its current siloed existence. Searls is one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which to me remains the most important book written about the internet. Right now, your information is being used online to help companies make money. Sometimes, that’s also good for you.

When the promise of the internet is realized, you’ll be able to use your personal information to your own advantage, choosing to work with the companies you like. There’s a big difference.

Keep an eye on Congress

As long as I’ve been in digital media, there have been few political issues that have really riled up the industry. There’s a long-standing discussion about the right path for digital rights management to take — the copyright protection particularly for audio and video files — and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act enacted in 1998. There was the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also passed in 1998.

While the telecommunications industry that much of the Internet rests on is heavily regulated, what we’re doing here online is not.

Regular laws still apply, of course, but the Internet has largely benefited from both a hands-off approach by Congress and federal agencies, and perhaps also from a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the technology.

Congress is beginning to catch up.

Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and he’s reportedly working on a bill to protect our Internet privacy.

I look at issues like this from two perspectives:

  • Hey, I don’t want you collecting a bunch of data about me!
  • Wow, look how cool it is that my iPhone knows where I am!

Unfortunately for the sake of innovation, a lot of what we can now do online requires the latter response from regulators, Congress and the general public. Here’s what worries me: As Internet innovation has sped along the past dozen years, the industry has depended on the public and lawmakers ignoring the man behind the curtain. And Congress tends to act with a very blunt sword when it approaches issues like copyright, privacy and technology.

But in the industry, we haven’t helped ourselves with things like:

  • Inability to protect customers’ information from data theft
  • Opaque and lengthy terms of service and privacy policies that only make lawyers happy
  • Ignoring opportunities to make our customers our best defense against harmful legislation

I don’t think Boucher’s intentions are to in any way stifle innovation or hamper the industry. But he’s clearly targeting consumers’ sense that their privacy is compromised just by being online. As an industry, we have to do a better job of educating our customers about why our innovation and information is so critical to them — and we have to give them easy ways to opt out if they can’t get past the squeamish factor.

Recently, several Internet advertising groups released a set of guidelines aimed at protecting consumers and forestalling damaging privacy legislation. We’ll see if it’s enough.