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2014: Time to rethink privacy

Evan Schuman | Jan. 2, 2014
Companies have to fully confront the privacy issues they face and rethink their policies from the bottom up.

In 2014, IT executives are going to have to make some very difficult decisions about privacy. Quite often when we talk about difficult decisions, we mean that we know what the right thing to do is, but it's just hard to bring ourselves to do it. In this case, though, part of the difficulty will be knowing what the right thing to do is. For that reason, every industry — nay, every company — will come to very different decisions based on the concerns of their employees and customers.

Of course, some companies have to face their privacy demons more than others. Yes, I'm looking at you, Google. Not that Google is likely to ever change how it handles privacy issues. (SAT time: Google is to privacy as (A) Osama bin Laden is to peaceful negotiations, (B) Lady Gaga is to rational thought or (C) Microsoft is to customer-centric. Answer: (D) all of the above.) The reason I'm looking at Google is that it just displayed privacy ineptitude on an epic scale.

This particular Google privacy debacle started out looking like the opposite: a rare instance of Google helping its customers protect their privacy. Android 4.3 was released with a privacy control that looked wonderful. You could see a list of all of your apps that told you exactly what access they had, and there was an easy way to restrict whatever you wanted to restrict. Even the privacy advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation — not exactly a group of Google fans — applauded the effort.

And then it disappeared. As of Android 4.4.2, this short-lived privacy aid was gone, as though the Grinch had discovered that all of his profits were being donated to charities. And then we found out that the useful tool was never meant to be useful to customers. In explanation, Google Android engineer Dianne Hackborn posted to followers: "That UI is (and it should be quite clear) not an end-user UI. It was there for development purposes. It wasn't intended to be available. The architecture is used for a growing number of things, but it is not intended to be exposed as a big low-level UI of a big bunch of undifferentiated knobs you can twiddle. For example, it is used now for the per-app notification control, for keeping track of when location was accessed in the new location UI, for some aspects of the new current SMS app control, etc."

You see? The idea that Google would make such intuitive privacy controls available to the people whose lives are being monitored was absurd to Google. Google views privacy as interference with profits. Its business model depends on extracting as much information as possible from consumers and businesses and selling it to other consumers and businesses.


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