Online Privacy Goes Federal


whitehouse_smallADOTAS – “Online privacy” is an all-encompassing term no one is using lightly these days.

With a click of a button and the right skills, anyone in the world can have access to certain parts of your identity, from your name, to your hometown, to your employment status, to your marital status. In the worst cases of privacy violations, a person’s entire identity — including social security number or credit card numbers — can be collected or stolen by an online thief.

Most websites try to take steps to protect the sensitive information of their users, but mistakes do happen. Privacy concerns with Facebook, Google Maps and geo-location sites like Foursquare have put a focus on online privacy as a whole.

Some of the questions that arise from these issues are big ones: Where is the line between having access to websites and online services and staying secure? And should the government intervene?

Being Targeted Without Wanting To Be Targeted. Two recent academic papers illustrated that Facebook advertisers can, by process of elimination, glean private information about those who click on ads.

Although the process is somewhat complicated, it does represent a privacy hole that Facebook needs to address. For example, an advertiser, or a snoop, can set up an ad to reach a targeted group of people on Facebook. They can target their ad toward gay males over 30 in the Dallas Fort-Worth area. Ads will be displayed to these men, whether or not their sexual orientation information is on their public profile on Facebook.

When a Facebook user in this sample group clicks on an ad, the assumption is that they are identifying themselves as gay. Since the ad was targeted only toward a gay audience, only members of that audience would have access to those ads to click on them. The same sort of forced self-identification can happen with any piece of personal information, such as religion and interests.

Although it takes a bit of reverse engineering in order to use this type of privacy crack, these “holes” do bring up some important questions about privacy and marketing. This type of customization and personalization in marketing is part of the way many major Internet companies make their money, including the Internet’s most heavy hitters — Facebook and Google.

Privacy Watchdog a Possibility. Although self-regulation has been the name of the game in online privacy thus far, the U.S. government will soon have more of a say about things.

The Commerce Department and the White House have announced the creation of a high-level position that will function as a “privacy watchdog.” The person who holds this position (already being dubbed the “Privacy Czar”) will communicate with other governments regarding privacy issues and act as the advocate for the issue in the administration.

The new position is part of an overall strategy by the Commerce Department to regulate privacy online. The details of this strategy will be revealed in an upcoming report and doesn’t seem to be isolated in terms of its signaling a new involvement in the online world from the Federal level. In a separate measure, the Federal Trade Commission is considering a “do not track” list that would let Americans opt out of being tracked online.

U.S. Following The World’s Example? Since there is no current comprehensive law that covers consumer privacy online, matters in this area are normally handled by the FTC, but these regulations apply only to privacy violations that are “deceptive” or deemed “unfair.”

As the United States begins to iron out its privacy laws, it does have several countries to learn from. The recent privacy alerts on Facebook and Google were led by Canada, Germany and the U.K., all of which had privacy laws that the companies were said to have been violating.

In this age of digital information, consumers, marketers and the government are all still working out (and will be for some time) what “privacy” means for online usage. The latest Facebook problems are likely to get fixed quickly, as the others have. And this will be one more case for the Commerce Department to include in its findings as it works out the best way for the U.S. government to be involved in the privacy debate.


  1. Thank you for pointing out those research studies, Peter. I had already seen that the type of targeting allowed on Facebook would reveal more than most realize.

    Many people have no idea how much data is already available about them. When people searches started offering the names and ages of the children in a household on searches for their parents’ names my concerns greatly increased.

    I know from personal experience that when someone knows enough details about your life they can get others to cash checks in your name and give them access to your accounts.

    If someone can talk intelligently about your family (names, where you live, where you work) most will assume they are a close friend or family member. In this way they can obtain even more information.

    The conveniences of checks, credit and debit cards, and accounts are biting many people now. They are far less secure than most will know until they are targeted. And then it takes a very long time to fix things – if you even can.

    There is no clear solution right now other than to not use them and how many will want to do that?

  2. I am from Germany and people are very much aware of their data and their privacy. I think it will be more and more like that in the states too because people are more aware of privacy issues these days.

  3. This just shows us how insecure facebook is and the repercussions this could have. Facebook has become too insecure and is almost unusable today. No content on facebook is safe. I have quit facebook in disgust and will be joining a safer social networking platform like MyCube or Diaspora as soon as they release

  4. it is important for the web to be secure. facebook privacy is a huge concern. i am waiting for mycube and diaspora to release, they look pretty secure


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