Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Best Way To Keep A Secret

Facebook has been taken to task for playing fast and loose with our privacy. Big brother (the Federal Trade Commission) is looking out for us and has now forced the Z-Team to play by new rules. If they want to make changes to our accounts the FTC ruled they have to first tell us and then ask us to say it's okay before making the proposed change. In other words, they are being compelled to ask subscribers to opt-in to any new features, settings or new plans the boys on the Z-Team might have for using our information.

Now I am all for better protection, full disclosure and audits to ensure no one is pulling a fast one. But at the end of the day, if there is something you don't want anyone to know about you consider not posting it in the first place. No doubt Facebook will ask for permission as required, but they hold all the cards. If you want to use some new feature or application and the "price" of doing so is the right for them to collect your data then most people will still click okay, agree, include me, allow it or whatever button presented says.

This reminded me of another recent discussion chastising personal computer software purveyors for their lengthy and unintelligible end user license agreements (EULA.). No one takes the time to read them (except perhaps lawyers.). People just click accept, approve or agree and complete the install or begin using the service. We're all guilty of this. Some government officials are now trying to address this issue as well.

This is not really a technology issue. It has more to do with the people behind the products and services we use on-line. I have always maintained you cannot legislate ethics. People will exploit data for profit or justify breaking trust for truth, justice and the benefit of mankind.

Facebook can be made to ask politely and clearly for permission to peek at your data, and EULAs may be rewritten in clear and concise language and people will continue to go along with whatever the provisions may be. We are dealing with the "me generation" who expect easy and fast applications that behave the way they want them to and, by the way, they ought to be free. To expect to get this and give nothing in return is ludicrous.

I use Google Voice. I know Google "listens" and mines this data to learn about me and other people like me. Yahoo tracks your searches, Amazon tracks purchases and Expedia your travels all in an effort to gain a better understanding of you and consumer behavior. It has been said that we are not the subscriber but rather the product. We deliver value to these services in return for functionality they provide us. I'm okay with that and so are the vast majority of people. If you don't like this bargain you can always opt out. Don't use the service.

So change the rules and simplify the language. Make sure people understand who has the right to access their data. Make them click two or three times and my guess is the outcome will be the same. People will continue to use these services, the provider will continue to gain value in some way and life will go on.

In my view the better answer is education. People must be smart about what they post. Assume what you post will have a much broader audience than just your intended audience. Assume it will be out there for a long time and that it may still be found by search engines five or ten years from now. If pictures or comments may some day cause embarrassment or worse, why post it in the first place?

As my friend Barbara always says, the best way to keep something secret remains not to tell anyone.

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC