Articles & Columns » State of the Arts Tech Talk

I write a Tech Talk column for the bi-monthly newspaper State of the Arts, published by the Montana Arts Council. My latest is Virtual Private Networks. My archives are here and you can subscribe to my RSS feed with your feed reader or by by email.

State of the Arts for September/October, 2010: Exploring the Basics of Online Privacy

We’re accustomed to security and privacy in the non-online world: we have locks on our doors and cars, and shades on the windows of our houses for privacy.

And we’re used to aspects of online security and privacy: we have email passwords and do online banking on secure web sites, and we know (or should know) that it’s good to be careful about what private information we put out on the Internet.

The terms privacy and security often get interchanged, especially online. They are different concepts, after all: being secure online is something you learn about and do; privacy is what may or may not happen with what you do about security.

We hear lots in the news about being secure online. Being private online is important to learn. For the next few Tech Talks, I’ll be covering the basics of online privacy: what online privacy is, how private information is gathered and used, what permissions we give companies regarding our private information and how online users can control their privacy.

Many technology industry pundits say that in the age of the Internet, very little is private anymore. But that doesn’t mean one should give up and not be concerned with online privacy.

Last year, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt (in response to a reporter’s questions about trusting Google with the huge amounts of private information the search company has accumulated for web searches) said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Schmidt’s point is interesting, because in 2005, he blacklisted some tech reporters for a year after the news company published an article about Schmidt’s salary and political donations and more, all found through Google searches.

And Facebook, the social networking site with more than 500 million users (as of 8/2010) has assumed the role of arbiter of online privacy.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said last year that “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

He was explaining changes in Facebook’s privacy polices made last December, when Facebook made by public default categories of information that had been private by user preference, and obscured details of the change at first, much to the consternation of privacy pundits.

Two years ago, Zuckerberg said that privacy controls were “the vector around which Facebook operates.” Some analysts think those initial privacy protections contributed to Facebook’s explosive growth and subsequent multi-billion market valuation.

The fact that companies decide what makes up ideas of privacy will continue, because it is to their advantage to gather more and more data for advertising use. So probably the most important point when considering your privacy online is that you need to be proactive and look out for yourself. (More next issue)

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