The tech industry can’t be trusted on privacy. That’s the message we’re getting these days – the one we see in headlines about Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG) Glass and Prism
, and in ad campaigns like Microsoft’s
(NASDAQ:MSFT) “Scroogled.” We experience it firsthand when targeted advertisements pop up in our news feed or our search results, and when our photos become the stuff of Web commercials
. Browser cookies, webmail monitoring, and other intrusive practices may be perfectly defensible, but they don’t poll well, and never have
Technology companies haven’t helped themselves by adopting blasé attitudes on the subject. Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, said in 1999 that, “you have zero privacy, get over it.” Ten years later, Google’s Eric Schmidt opined that, “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
This lack of concern often leads to embarrassment. In the last few years, both Google and Facebook
(NASDAQ:FB) have caused rows by making changes in their privacy policies and not bothering to explain them to users. If revelations about Prism have given the industry a black eye, it’s because tech firms were in Washington campaigning on immigration reform, net neutrality, and cybersecurity, when they should have been agitating for customer privacy. As a recent Pew survey found, Americans are worried about Facebook, not the NSA
We expect the companies that control our data to protect it. That’s a crazy expectation; a naive one. It’s widely known that they’re selling this personal information, and that the data trade drives revenue for many of today’s largest tech firms, and yet the public still operates under the quaint notion that these businesses are – or should be – trustworthy. One would think that an industry so reliant on trust would be trying a little harder to sustain it.
Instead, that responsibility has fallen to startups and outsiders. Microsoft and Google didn’t take action on browser cookies, so it was Mozilla that led the charge. USA Today
reports that Google, facing a spate of lawsuits in the US
as well as legal trouble in Europe, is now looking at anonymous identifiers to replace cookies – a welcome development but hardly a proactive one. Apple
(NASDAQ:AAPL) is ahead of the curve, having always restricted cookies on Safari, but then the Cupertino-based company routinely goes against the grain and is one of the few major Silicon Valley firms still earning its money the old-fashioned way – by selling a physical product.
This has been the year of Snapchat; 350 million photos are now shared – and deleted – on the platform each day. Secret.li lets you slate Facebook posts for automatic deletion, and Twitterspirit offers the same service on Twitter. These products come at a time when both Twitter and Facebook are trying to get more mileage out of old content, and when graph search, hash tags, and monetization have made users more visible, and more searchable. It’s understandable that some folks would be worried, like the 12% of Internet users who (according to Pew) have been stalked or harassed online, or the 6% who claim to have had their reputation damaged.
Then there are smaller social networks like Path and Origami, distinguished by their freemium business models. They drive revenue by charging for extra features, and not by selling their customers down the river – making for an arguably better relationship between network and user, and certainly one that’s more upfront.
Unfortunately, many larger tech companies have painted themselves into a corner on privacy. An obsession with ‘free’ has left them nowhere to turn but advertising, and an addiction to data has driven them toward scale at all costs. The industry has become massively centralized, with information migrating toward data centers and “stack” providers like Google, and away from individuals. You don’t get privacy from such a system. What you do get is a sudden rush of businesses, criminals, and governments, all looking to tap into this wonderful conglomeration of information – one way or another.
Privacy is a problem, and the problem isn’t going away. It presents an opportunity for small tech companies
trying to make their entrance and for the few larger firms whose hands aren’t tied, but it’s also a cloud hanging over everyone. Thus far, the industry has managed to keep regulators at arm's length, but in a post-Prism world, that may no longer be possible. The dangers have become more immediate, they’ve acquired the flavor of national security, and we’re hearing political rumblings around the world. If the tech industry can’t provide a solution, it runs the risk of having one imposed. Either way, denial may no longer be an option.
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