Tracking You Online: Privacy or Customer Service?


Google is watching you.

And with recent changes in its privacy policy, Google has renewed a debate how Internet service providers like Google can collect and use the personal information routinely — and quietly — exposed on the web by users.

“Most people have no idea the volume of information they have on them or how it’s been used.” said David Jacobs, consumer privacy fellow at the public interest research group Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Google sparked the latest controversy when it announced that on March 1 it would replace its 60 privacy policies with just one. That consolidation, Google has said, would make its policy more transparent and easier to read. The policy would also make it easier for Google to share users’ information across its services. For example, if a Gmail user scheduled an appointment through email, Google could synchronize that with applications like its calendar.

That makes it makes more efficient for users, Google has said. But skeptics are concerned that a change like Google’s puts users’ information at risk. Now, the government is weighing its options to protect consumers.

On the web, users put themselves at risk for identify theft, targeted advertising and generally, revealing information to parties they didn’t intend to. This happens because no one really reads privacy policies, said Jacobs of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“Everything has a privacy policy,” he said. “Every site, every app — it’s just not efficient for you to take the time to read all of them. And there’s only so much that we can count on privacy policies to do. They can’t bear the weight of being the guarantor of protecting people.”

Jacobs’ group is among several that advocate for “shared responsibility” among consumers and service providers. They also call for the government to step in. For example, they approve of the Federal Trade Commission having the power to sanction service providers that overstep consumers’ right to privacy.

The government is already analyzing privacy regulation on the web. In the first few months of 2012 alone, the FTC, Congress and the administration have all taken steps to increase protection of consumer privacy.

The FTC has sanctioned companies in an effort to “make sure that companies live up to the promises they make about privacy and data security,” the agency said in a press release in January. A group of members of Congress — led by U.S. Reps. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif. — have called on Google to allow consumers to opt out of information sharing. And the White House has issued a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” that outlines general principles for protecting users’ personal information online.

The concerns over privacy are as old as the Internet, said Milton Mueller, information studies professor at Syracuse University. And not much has changed because of Google’s announcement, he said. People still won’t read privacy policies and service providers will still collect a ton of information on consumers. “It’s all psychologically deep,” Mueller said. “The fact of the matter is that they had all of this information before. In many respects, nothing really changed.”

Google and other Internet services — like Facebook — routinely collect information on users, such as basic identification, search and buying histories, and connections to other users. That allows advertisers and the Internet services to more tightly and accurately target ads and services to the users’ preferences. The problem is that users often don’t know the information is being gathered, say web experts.

In search of a solution, Joon Park, another professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, has researched privacy practices. Many tools to protect consumers are already available, he said.

Service providers, for example, can change default settings to automatically collect more or less information. They can decide whether to share data across their services. They can choice whether to allow only the users to decide what information about them is shared.

“For all users, providers and third parties, the ultimate goal is share the information as much as is necessary,” Park said. “No less and no more.”

(Julie McMahon is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)


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