Internet Privacy: Your anonymous signature in the web

Webster’s dictionary defines privacy as the quality or state of being apart from company or observation. ‘Online privacy’ has been a topic of concern and debate for a while. Richard Stallman had warned us long time back that Internet users need to swim against the tide if they were to protect their privacy. Recently, Steve Woznaik predicted that Cloud Computing could cause horrible problems to us in the next five years. Above all, privacy Expert Steve Rambam has declared, Privacy is actually dead and it’s time we get over it. While these are no good news to the consumer, technology giants (like Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft) on the other end are claiming to take privacy pretty seriously. With all of them showing keenness to crack the human mind, I’m convinced it is fundamentally not possible for any of them to allow the consumer experience ‘privacy’ as defined by Webster’s. So, what’s the privacy that they are talking about? As I looked into their privacy policies, it is evident that at best, these policies explain clearly how one’s privacy (going strictly by Webster’s definition) can be compromised when their products are used. My attempt in this blog is to understand their policies and identify the one that intrudes the least into user’s privacy.

Google

Google has made it’s intentions clear through it’s privacy policy that for its products to provide a compelling user experience that is personalized and relevant, it would need to collect every possible information about customer behavior that is out there. The information includes details about the consumer’s device (hardware, OS, crash events etc.), customer’s footsteps in their site (click stream, IP, cookies), customer’s location details (GPS, nearby wi-fi towers, cell towers). Google apparently strives to get the most out of cookies, anonymous identifiers and pixel tags to know the customer’s mind. While Google’s ambitions maybe to decipher the human mind, it is feared for the enormity of the data it holds about the customer. Maybe it has enough data to identify the customer through his/her mind.

Some of the controversies in the past clearly reflect this sentiment. The incident of Google to have inadvertently collected Wi-fi payload data from public wi-fi spots was received with intense criticism. Its street cameras are perceived to be too invasive into our homes. Google’s recent move to unify its privacy policies across products is received with skepticism.

Amidst all these controversies, one thing that I see positive about goggle is its data liberation initiative, which is about allowing the user to liberate him/her along with their data from Google when one decides to stop using its services.

Apple

Apple collects as much information as Google does when the consumer is on its terrain (Apple website, icloud, app store etc.).  In fact in limited cases, Apple also collects the consumer’s SSN. While Google’s message to the consumers sounds like ‘We would like to know everything about you to delight you’, Apple’s message is more like ‘Look, we need all this data about you to delight you. You better be aware of this’. Apple has always mentioned it takes privacy seriously. Apple’s safari browser blocks third arty cookies by default and its opt-out channels are relatively straightforward and accessible.

But still Apple is not free of any controversies in the past. Notable instances include the location logging controversy last year where in iOS was found to be logging one’s location details and backing up in one of Apple’s servers. Apple acknowledged this to be a bug. The recent one is about exposing the unique identifier of an iphone/ipad device (UUID) though one its APIs. Apple has responded by deprecating this API as well. Apple was also criticized for allowing mobile apps (like Path) to access one’s personal contacts (without explicit consent) that could eventually land in external servers. Apple responded by including an explicit consent. Above all this, I imagine the biggest source of personal data to Apple is through its flagship app Siri. While Apple has made it clear that Siri’s data will only stay with Siri that sure is a lot of personal data including our voice.

Amazon

With its very minimal retail (store) presence, Amazon relies heavily on data for their marketing needs. I believe Amazon crunches enormous data to understand their customer behavior and target them with personalized product recommendations. Amazon has been pretty effective in handling data with no major controversies until last year. The only controversy (on privacy) that I can recall about Amazon is with its ‘Silk’ browser that is packaged as part of its tablets. There is a default option in Silk that allows every HTTP request go through Amazon’s cloud infrastructure. While Amazon assures you a better experience through speed, it allows it to capture the user’s entire web history. This does not apply to SSL connections and the user could turn off this feature as well.

Facebook

While the companies mentioned above are feared for what they know about you, Facebook is primarily feared for what they can reveal about you. While its mission is to make the world open and connected, its users have certainly found it difficult to digest that and keep pace with the change. There have been several controversies in the past where Facebook has reimagined privacy. Beacon feature is an acknowledged misstep. News feed was another controversial product in the beginning but proved successful over time. Facebook is currently pushing the envelope through its ‘frictionless sharing’ applications where there is nothing private after signing up for it. As usual, it is both loved and hated at the same time.

Microsoft

While there have been numerous controversies around Microsoft’s control over the platform, when it comes to Privacy, Microsoft comes out pretty clean. I observe its privacy policy to be the friendliest of the lot. While Microsoft is equally interested in data about consumer behavior, its privacy policy (Bing) explicitly calls out that personally identifiable information will not be correlated with the behavior data. Microsoft has demonstrated its ‘privacy by design’ philosophy on multiple occasions. While Siri transmits the voice to a remote server, Microsoft’s Kinect keeps the biometric data locally. While every one else assume opt-in by default (on many occasions) Microsoft keeps ‘Opt-Out’ as a default.  Microsoft’s recent heroic in privacy is about insisting and keeping ‘Do Not Track’ as the default setting in its IE10.  In my opinion, Microsoft emerges as a clear winner when it comes to Privacy.

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