2010, the year that privacy died?

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

Image caption,
Should we be wary of our digital shadow?

For the twin pillars of the web, Google and Facebook, it has been something of an annus horribilis when it comes to privacy.

Facebook's attempts to make more and more of people's profiles publicly available and Google's seemingly laissez-faire attitude to data have made headlines across the world.

People hitherto gung-ho about their digital footprint, knowing little and caring less about the trail of information they leave, have been forced to think a little deeper about their online lives.

Facebook has made no secret of its desire to make the web more social but its increasingly complex privacy settings meant people were starting to give away more information than they wanted to more people than they intended.

"The environment of social networking is designed to encourage people to share. Often the default setting is privacy-unfriendly," said Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute.

Image caption,
Mark Zuckerberg wants a 'social' web

At the start of the year, Facebook's privacy settings ran to more pages than the US constitution forcing founder Mark Zuckerberg to announce wide-ranging changes in May.

"Making the privacy controls on Facebook comprehensive and easy to understand is an important part of our commitment to giving every person the power to control their own Facebook experience," the firm said at the time.

But not everyone is convinced it went far enough.

"The changes have made some aspects easier to control but more and more of people's public profile is being made publicly accessible," said Mr Brown.

Facebook is beginning to understand the importance of ring-fencing our net conversations, thinks Gus Hosein of Privacy International.

"It has realised that the internet isn't just one big space where we are yelling at each other. With the introduction of Facebook groups there is now a way of ensuring that my mum doesn't get all of my updates," he said.

Data breach

Google's desire to gatekeep the world's data has long made privacy advocates sit up in fear.

Privacy just does not come naturally to the search giant, thinks Mr Brown.

"One of Google's mantras is to organise the world's information. Its mindset by default finds the European obsession with privacy slightly bizarre. It's view is why wouldn't people want it to tell them where they should go for their next holiday," he said.

It wasn't just European privacy commissioners who sat up and took notice when Google launched its social network tool Buzz and linked it to 170 million Gmail accounts, without actually checking that the mail users wanted to be a part of it.

It moved quickly to change the system after much criticism but a much bigger problem was lurking around the corner.

Image caption,
Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt has been bullish about privacy issues

In June it was revealed that Google's StreetView service had been scooping up the personal data contained in thousands of unsecured wireless networks.

At the time the search firm apologised for what it called "a mistake" although chief executive Eric Schmidt was later more bullish, declaring "who was harmed?".

It led to enquiries around the world, with Canada's data commissioner Jennifer Stoddart leading the charge.

She issued a severe rap over the knuckles to the search giant but stopped short of imposing a fine.

She did however make it clear that the culture within Google had to change.

Google blamed its data lapse on rogue code and has now vowed to offer privacy training to all its engineers.

It has been making huge strides towards a more privacy-friendly service, even before this year's data breaches thinks Mr Hosein.

"Google has already introduced its dashboard which allows people to know what information it holds on them. If only every other companies did the same," he said.

This year it also began publishing the data requests made by governments around the world, a hugely significant step, thinks Mr Hosein.

Piracy clamp-down

It is an interesting twist in 2010's privacy story that while private companies have been forced to put their houses in order, governments seem intent on increasing their snooping powers.

Image caption,
BT and other ISPs have become vocal allies of privacy advocates

2010 has seen a major crackdown on piracy, with governments around the globe demanding that service providers hand over the details of persistent pirates so that tough penalties can be applied.

Piracy has undoubtedly damaged the music and film industries as a generation of youngsters grow up believing that they don't have to pay for such content.

Many aren't convinced that cutting offenders off from the net is the right policy while internet service providers (ISPs) are becoming increasingly irritated with their new role as net police.

Tracking down pirates relies on the co-operation of ISPs handing over the addresses of users that are found to be sharing content for free.

BT and TalkTalk are not convinced of the legality of such requirements and have taken their challenge to the High Court where they were recently granted a hearing in the new year which will decide if the UK's net piracy legislation can go ahead.

Government snooping laws means ISPs have become odd bedfellows with privacy advocates but how long such a policy will last as they struggle to make money remains to be seen, thinks Mr Hosein.

"It is not part of their business models to collect their customer's information but as they see things like location-based services making money, they are going to ask how they can get a share of it," he said.

The UK's broadband minister Ed Vaizey has made no secret of the fact he wants ISPs to take more responsibility for the content on their pipes.

Mr Brown predicts tougher laws as governments seek to make that happen.

It may include taking away service provider's 'mere conduit' argument which states that they just provide the pipes for communication and are not responsible for what goes on on their networks.

"There is strong pressure to put liability back on service providers. I wouldn't be surprised to see legal changes over the next two or three years," said Mr Brown.

A side-effect of the piracy clamp-down has been a spate of law firms chasing people it believes to have unlawfully downloaded pornographic films and asking for one-off fines.

One such firm ACS: Law was responsible for a huge data breach of its own when its database was leaked online in protest at its methods.

Unlike Google's StreetView data, which was not seen by anyone, this breach had the potential to do real harm to people, containing the email addresses of thousands of people and the pornographic films they had been accused of downloading.

The case is currently being investigated by the Information Commissioner's Office and ACS:Law could be liable for a hefty fine.

It has led ISPs such as Plusnet to reassess what information they give out about customers.

Consumer power

People's information, as well as being of interest to government, is fast becoming the most important commodity online.

More and more firms are finding clever ways to mine data in an effort to improve their interaction with customers and step ever closer to the haloed 'personal web'.

Net infrastructure firm Cisco, for example, offers a tool called Social Miner which it sells as a way for companies to "augment customer contact and service by proactively injecting customer service agents into public discussions on companies and brands on Facebook and Twitter".

In non-corporate speak that means that Facebook friends criticising, say, the recent flight chaos at Heathrow might find a representative from an airline or BAA popping up to explain their actions.

Cisco says the tool only looks at publicly available information on the social web.

"It only sees what consumers allow it it to see. In many cases Cisco SocialMiner offers consumers another way to ensure their feedback is heard and addressed appropriately," its said.

But Mr Hosein wonders about the function of such tools going forward.

"On the face of it this may seem like it is giving power to the consumer but it becomes less empowering when people don't know exactly what companies know about them," said Mr Hosein.

And having the tools to know what people are doing could mean that, at some point in the future, firms make value judgements about what services different customers have access to, he said.

It is why privacy is so crucial to the current net neutrality debate and why privacy advocates will continue to put pressure on firms and governments to safeguard it.

"For the moment, privacy is very much alive and well online," said Mr Hosein.

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