Familiar with the apps that vacuum in your personal information without your knowledge? Or online companies that track you even after you’ve nicely asked them not to? Well, the White House announced last week a new ‘Consumer Bill of Rights’ that will try to clarify how online companies and app developers are supposed to navigate your privacy. Bob speaks with Ryan Singel of wired.com about consumer privacy’s prospects and potential.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Heard the one about the app on your iPhone that secretly collects all your contacts and stores them on their servers? How about the photo app that vacuums up all your personal photos without your knowledge, or how Hulu tracks where you go online even after you’ve asked them very nicely to cease and desist? And Facebook, they wrote the playbook that now everyone else is cribbing from.
Into this shady online world of petty larceny and covert surveillance, the White House stepped last week, with a new “Consumer Bill of Rights”. Ryan Singel writes the Threat Level blog for wired.com, and he joins us once again. Hey Ryan, welcome back.
RYAN SINGEL: Hey Bob, thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: If the Obama Administration has its way, what rights will the consumer indeed have?
RYAN SINGEL: Well, they kind of laid out some basic principles, which is that companies that collect your data should let you know they’re collecting it and they should give you a way to see what you gave them. And the companies that collect the data should use it for limited purposes.
You know, the Internet industry brought this on themselves. The White House is talking about Internet privacy because Silicon Valley has been so irresponsible.
BOB GARFIELD: But, does Silicon Valley and the advertising industry slink away chastened, or do they give each other high fives because the White House has articulated a set of principles without any legislation or actual regulation being involved?
RYAN SINGEL: I think there’s a little bit of both. This was just sort of the beginning of a process. The FTC has a lot of leeway to go after companies for violating unfair business practices, which has never been very well defined. And if treating customers’ data in a way that’s not respectful or transparent gets defined as an unfair business practice, then you can have an FTC that doesn’t go after every bad actor but goes after enough that it scares the industry into cleaning up its act.
We also saw that Google and Microsoft and AOL and Yahoo! and, and a large number of other online advertisers at the same time agreed to this kind of voluntary program where if you push a little button on your browser that says Do Not Track, the companies will actually obey that. And so, I think that was very much the industry trying to say “don’t make these terrible rules, like this time when we self-regulate it’ll actually work.”
BOB GARFIELD: In fairness to the advertising industry, among the things that they said is that the data is really anonymized. They only care where your browser is going for the purpose of targeting you with ads. Right?
RYAN SINGEL: That’s largely true, but there’s also a lot of weird stuff going on behind the scenes. So there’s all these ad information exchanges, ways for them to make it so that it’s not anonymous. Just be transparent. Tell me when you’re collecting information. There should be a little icon, and we’re starting to see this, where you can click on it, it’ll tell you why they thought this was the right ad for you.
Google has had this for a while. You can actually go and click on one of their ads and it’ll take you to the privacy page and it’ll explain to you what categories they think you fall into. And you can either remove those categories, you can opt out or you can actually add more categories. Giving people that choice makes people just generally feel better, and I think it’s respectful and the right thing to do.
BOB GARFIELD: And apart from bills of rights or FTC regulation, there are other ways to get in touch with your own data, software that shows you what information third parties can get about you, like Collusion. Are they making an impression? Are they making a dent?
RYAN SINGEL: Collusion won’t protect you from anything. It just sort of shows you what’s out there. And there are some other interesting little plug-ins you can use. There’s one called Ghostery that will watch what sites are collecting data on you, and you can block them, There’s one called Abine, A-B-I-N-E. And there’s another one called BetterPrivacy.
But I think it’s bad for the Internet culture for, you know, a lot of people to just always feel like they’re being ripped off or spied on or treated unfairly.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s hard for me to imagine that the Facebooks of the world will permit themselves to be slowed down by something as toothless as a bill of rights. What are they gonna do?
RYAN SINGEL: They’re mostly going to be fine. They’ll just have to let you delete your data or delete your account, or show you a little bit more about what they’ve collected on you. That’s not that hard for them. And the things like Do Not Track, they don’t count if you’re signed into a service. It doesn’t make any sense for Facebook not to track me because they have to, right? That’s how the service works.
Google is mimicking Facebook. Their privacy changes started on March 1st, and they’ve taken over the Facebook model, which is that your Google cookie is your identity. They know who you are across all the services. They combine all that info, and they’re gonna start – giving you targeted ads based on what you’ve said in your Gmail or the kind of searches you’ve made, where you happen to be calling people, if you use Google Voice. They’re not gonna be slowed down by this. And I don’t think that’s the point, is to stop that juggernaut. People like Facebook, people like Google. Those are – they’re very useful services.
But I also think the best thing would be to maybe slow them just a little bit so they have to take the time to build transparency and fairness into their data collection practices.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Ryan. Thank you very much for joining us.
RYAN SINGEL: Thanks for having me on, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Ryan Singel edits the Threat Level blog for wired.com.