Does Privacy Exist Anymore?

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diary_smallADOTAS – Once upon a time, people had addresses, jobs, phone numbers, significant others, children, cars, birthdays and, yes, even thoughts that weren’t within 30 seconds’ reach of anyone and everyone through a simple Internet search.

Yes, once upon a time, there was a thing called privacy.

Fast forward to now… Everything in the world of information, it seems, is public. It’s accessible. It’s open and it is definitely plentiful. And, what’s more, its availability and its potential to be exposed further are always changing.

One day, it’s secure, closed, inaccessible…private. And the next day, well, maybe the standards have changed. Maybe it is public and open. Maybe lapses are discovered and hurriedly plugged up. Maybe it is on the open market. Maybe it is even for sale. Maybe the search engines have access to it. Who knows?

The line between what is private and what is not is, at best, blurry — and even that blurriness is changing every day.

Take Facebook, for example. Millions of us willingly and freely feed our private information into this social networking giant. What’s more, hundreds (or more) of third-party Facebook applications ask for and are often granted access into our profiles as well.

The latest is that Facebook applications now have to let users know which parts of their profiles they will be going into and they will need to explicitly ask for users’ permission before doing so (this applies to things like photos and videos). Currently, the information considered “basic” and accessible by all third-party applications includes: the user’s name, profile picture, gender and list of network memberships.

Facebook has a history of announcing a new and potentially sweeping change in how it protects (or doesn’t) users’ privacy, and then following a giant backlash (in most cases), tweaks it or adjusts to try and make everyone happy. Then, regardless of the outcome, all of the Facebook experts remind us that no matter what the stated privacy policy or standards are, we should always assume that any and all information we provide could or will become public domain.

In other words, don’t share that which you want to keep private.

Find Me. Geolocators — those tools that allow us to announce to anyone who is listening, reading, following and caring where we are located in any given moment – are also big players in the current privacy discussion.

It’s now being reported that Foursquare, perhaps the best known of the bunch, apparently has a glitch in its system so that instead of broadcasting location information only to approved people, anyone (with the help of certain scripts) can now monitor the movements and whereabouts of any active Foursquare user.

How does it work? When Foursquare users “check in,” their location (determined via GPS) is published. Even those users who have chosen to share their check-ins with friends only still run the risk of being seen by others. Even if the opt-in is in place, all locations provide images, in a gallery format, of the last 50 users (with names) who’ve checked into the same place.

Foursquare has said it recently added an option for users to block the gallery from publishing their information, but this may be an I-told-you-so kind of measure. Not everyone will know that blocking is an option, or even that it exists. Further, the damage, so to speak, has already been done. From home robberies to overly-interested stalker types, even for lonely folks looking for friends, there are all sorts of not-welcome potential situations that not-private-but-billed-as-private information could bring.

Map It. Of course, there aren’t many conversations about the Internet or the online world today that don’t include Google, and this one is no different: Google is in the throes of its own privacy battles, one in particular in the area of online mapping data and information.

The search engine giant is currently embroiled in a legal battle over private information gathered during (unauthorized) clicking, specifically through its “Street View” product of Google Maps.

In the U.S., even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is jumping in after lawmakers and attorneys general from 30 states have asked for more information and oversight. Nobody seems to know exactly who is doing what or what information is accessible (or not).

Street View, around since 2007, has become the subject of these demands and of recent controversy following the discovery of Google’s people clicking photographs of the streets and putting them online. The situation also includes homes being posted online, and the way that Google is collecting information from emails and other personal data. (Google says it wasn’t aware of any of these issues, and investigations are underway.)

Use At Your Own Risk. From Facebook to Foursquare to Google — and everything in-between — it is more clear than ever that the scope and definition of privacy, and that its related standards, options and settings are changing day-to-day and, in some cases, moment-to-moment.

What was thought to be private was not, at least for a spell, private. In this new arena of all-on and all-information all-of-the-time, mistakes are made, glitches are discovered, holes are discovered and not much is truly private anymore. Until and unless true standards are established in what is not-yet a mature area, privacy will remain a “buyer beware” arena for everyone involved.

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