Logging In: Out of Bounds

Even your precious firewall can't save you now; kiss your privacy goodbye

It's been a rough year for those who dedicate their time to protecting everyone else's privacy. They've battled the National Security Agency over its surveillance habits (currently focusing on the telecoms) and watched their one-time nemesis Google lose the right to keep everyone's YouTube viewing habits private. In a world with Facebook, it's tempting to say, who cares? But out of all of today's privacy battles, the clash between Google and Viacom has the greatest potential to change the amount of privacy we can expect online.

That is not to downplay the battle with the NSA. But since its founding in 1952, the NSA has been able to access the communications of most Americans. Its rigor has been more dependent on the desires of presidential administrations than on any technology.

The ability to access telecom records is not so much a function of the birth, growth or success of the Internet as it is an extension of an old tactic bolstered by new technology. Per James Bamford's The Puzzle Palace, fulfilling the NSA mission has always required the "cooperation" of the leading communication companies, whether it was the telegraph companies of the '50s or the telecoms of today.

That's sad, but it's also old news. At this writing, I'd bet the telecoms will be given immunity. To do otherwise would open up a door that few people really want unsealed, for better or worse.

What's more troubling - though seemingly less overarching, since it only involves media companies and not the largest intelligence organization in the world - is the Google/Viacom court case. In mid-July, Google agreed to reveal to Viacom which videos individual users watched on YouTube, but only if it could replace usernames and IP addresses with anonymous, numbered ids. If Google had been forced to include more specific information, it would have opened a view into our everyday lives heretofore unseen even by the NSA.
Viacom plans to use the data to see whether users are illegally sharing video. For the first time, there will be a way, with a little coding here and there, to associate who we are (with some anonymity) with what we do online, not just what we say or write. Now that the data is sprung loose from Google's control, it's logical to infer that every other site showing video will be open to the same request. Google just happens to be the biggest fish.

There's a larger question: Do the masses of people who share their every living moment on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and countless other sites really care who knows what about them?

When it comes down to it, I'd bet on a resounding yes. Now, all of them choose what they want people to know about them and what part of their lives they want to share, even if it seems like they're sharing every tiny detail. Lose that choice, and the true meaning of the word privacy will become miraculously clear.

The Facebook groups who are now so agitated about the privacy violations of News Feed will have a whole new reason for angst. The copyrighted videos shared on Facebook are subject to the same attack as those on YouTube. What would be handed over in that case could be a much more vast and revealing user data-stream than what videos we watch.

Most of us knew there was always the possibility of something like this happening, but  it's a surprise that Google would be the "victim" and Viacom, a media company, would be the aggressor. We have come to expect threats to our rights from secretive government agencies and extremist groups - not the guys who bring us 60 Minutes and MTV.

Knowing whom to fear was always lesson one for winning the battle, but now, thanks to the Internet, the rules have changed. Think about how much you do, watch, read, write and post online. Do you want to give up the right to choose with whom you share that information? We may soon be wishing for the good old days, when all we had to fear was the NSA.

Kathy Sharpe is CEO of Sharpe Partners.

Next story loading loading..