Information Privacy

In a burst of good sense, the Federal Trade Commission is on the right track.  Earlier this week, it “issued a strong call for commercial-data collectors to adopt better privacy practices and called for Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation.”  While I have no great confidence in Congressional skill at protecting our privacy, this would be a better choice than leaving our information to the tender mercies of “commercial-data collectors.”  As FTC Chairman, Jon Leibowitz, notes,

Simply put, your computer is your property.  No one has the right to put anything on [your computer] that you don’t want[.]

The FTC’s initial solution, though, is at best naïve.  Putting a “Do Not Track” button into Web browsers is doomed to failure as Google’s decision to ignore even user-deliberate attempts to prevent their browsers from yielding up personal information demonstrates.  Such a button will not prevent the data collection; it can only rely on a “Pretty please, Mr Data taker, don’t take my data” plea.  Beyond that, the data collectors already are weasel-wording the meaning of “Do Not Track.”  The online-ad industry, for instance, has decided it means “Do Not Target,” and it will still collect your data for “market research,” “product development,” and the like.  Oh, and “trust us.”

The need for overt controls that actually block the collection rather than relying on begging and the good offices of the collectors is demonstrated by, even more than the equivocations, the rank cynicism of those collectors and their objections.  The Wall Street Journal article at the first link cites the Executive Vice President of the Direct Marketing Association, Linda Woolley—whose group represents many of those data hounds—as saying her Association opposes

giving consumers access to marketing information because it would be expensive, difficult to keep secure and the type of data used by marketers doesn’t harm consumers.

Sorry, Madam, your costs aren’t relevant to my privacy.  You don’t get to hide from me what you’re trying to take from me because that might hurt your pocketbook.  As to your plaint that such data would be “difficult to keep secure,” it’s not secure now.  You’re already taking it without our permission, and often without our knowledge, and as Google has demonstrated, and as Apple has demonstrated with its unauthorized tracking via our smart phones.  Worse, your view of “security” is markedly different from ours.  And on what basis should we believe your claim that the data you’re taking from us to be “used by marketers” doesn’t harm us when you’re at such pains to hide those data from us?

Woolley says,

We are very wary about taking the information out of the information economy[.]

Since it’s not your information in the first place, and we’re only looking to recover that which you’ve taken without authorization, no data are being taken “out of the information economy.”  Your argument could be used by the burglar, who having successfully stolen the jewelry from our house, also is “wary of taking…out of [his] economy.”

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