A Modest Proposal on Privacy


Privacy is different for everyone. Robert Scoble is happy sharing, while I would hate showing off pictures of my daughter to my Twitter followers or even checking into a grocery store on Gowalla or Foursquare. Add the conflicting goals of a site like Facebook — which wants to make money from people’s data — to the disparity between people’s tolerance for sharing, and we’re faced with labyrinthine privacy policies and confused messaging as big services try to please a huge section of users, most of whom who don’t want to sit down and go through 170 options to change their privacy settings.

Now even Congress is getting involved — but wireless analyst Chetan Sharma proposed an interesting idea last night in his first-quarter wireless data analysis. The analysis is worth checking out (for example he notes how Verizon (s vz) edged past Japan’s NTTDoCoMo for the first time to become the carrier making the most money selling wireless data), but his suggestion for dealing with privacy is worth sharing with those outside of the wireless industry, who might otherwise miss it:

If people are really serious about tackling privacy, OEMs and carriers should build a physical/soft privacy button on the device with 3-5 levels (just like for the ringer volume) that allows users to open/close privacy across all applications and services with the touch of a button. All apps and services should adhere to the principle via APIs. The other mistake companies make about privacy is by treating everyone the same. Privacy is about the perception of control and transparency. If it is given back to the consumer, they are likely to engage more and have a more positive impact on revenue streams that are likely to flow.

Clearly there are issues with this, including the fact that it would only work on mobiles, and that most people have different settings for different apps. Implementing such a button would also require the carriers or handset makers to work together with app developers without trying to hijack standards or access to the information. But the idea of a privacy middleware layer or a service is intriguing, be it on a handset or as another layer in the cloud. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d): Could Prrivacy Be Facebook’s Waterloo?



Yes, it would be more convenient for users to have a central way to control privacy but let us not forget that if we want our privacy, we must take responsibility for it. Do we blame the house builder when we forget to lock our doors?

Better to use tools which are freely available, like TrueCrypt and TrulyMail to keep your private information private. Of course, when you store information on someone else’s server (like Facebook’s) then you really don’t have options to keep your data private.

You can depend on privacy statements but as Facebook has shown us, those can change.

So, the lesson is, keep your data private and off the servers of others.

James Mowery

“OEMs and carriers should build a physical/soft privacy button on the device with 3-5 levels (just like for the ringer volume) that allows users to open/close privacy across all applications and services with the touch of a button.”

That sounds interesting. Problem is that most people wouldn’t take advantage of it. Eventually the phone is going to be pestering you about access, and people will just opt for the lowest setting that is considered safe.

So that idea is pretty much out of the question.

And I agree with aep528’s statement about missing the point. Facebook has been screwing with the privacy settings and interface far too much, that most people probably have no idea what they are sharing any longer, and are too overwhelmed to bother messing with it. People are lazy in that regard.

I believe a solution that could solve all of these complaints this very moment would be a global “reset” button that will lock down your profile completely, not sharing any data with anyone, and then allowing a user to start from scratch to select the information that they would like to share.

Of course, simplifying the interface is also crucial, but if Facebook offered me this option, I would be all over it. Then I could be sure everything is set the way I want it, and then Facebook couldn’t be held liable for me oversharing stuff that I specified I wanted shared.

Dilip Andrade

Mr. Sharma’s idea is intriguing… He should have filed a patent application before talking about it.

I’d personally be very happy with a system of granular control. Each type of action should be on a privacy form and I can select who has access to it. If the service provider wants to change the rules, my settings can be grandfathered in and new users subjected to the new terms.

If the service provider determines that my settings are incongruous with their business plan, they can ask me to pay for the service to keep my information as private as I want, or they can notify me that my service will be terminated. In which case it would be great if there was a way to get all my data out, but if I knew that there wasn’t when I started putting my data in, then it’s my problem.


This article, like so many on this subject, completely misses the point. The problem isn’t that Facebook or any other app wants to make data public. The problem is that Facebook keeps changing the rules. If Facebook had stated it was going to share data from the very beginning, it a) Probably wouldn’t have grown as big and b) Would not now have people complaining about privacy.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that Facebook has said so little on the subject, because the privacy debate is a red herring that takes focus away from certain corporate behaviors, such as unilaterally imposing new terms and conditions.

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