Kudos to Groupon for Notifying Consumers of Privacy Changes – and Doing so in Advance of Rollout

July 17, 2011

Defying the prevailing practice of steadily eroding user’s privacy and doing so without so much as a warning, Groupon has sent users a clear advance notice of pending changes and encourages users to read them.

And (Gasp!) Groupon is actually strengthening their privacy commitment to consumers, giving users more control over their privacy settings, and making their policy easier to understand.

It is a sad reflection on the internet industry that the respect Groupon shows their consumers is noteworthy, and it highlights a very clear gap that consumers generally have failed to appreciate.

There are two types of internet companies – those that respect you, and those that don’t.

Companies that respect their consumers work hard to give you full control over the information they collect and store about you. They are respectful of how they share any information about you and selective in choosing the companies with whom they share your information.

Respectful companies make it easy to understand their privacy policies and terms of use, notify you in advance of any significant changes to their terms or services, make it easy for you to remove your information from their sites and put strong measures in place to secure your data. Learn more about how respectful companies behave in my blogs Your Internet Safety and Privacy Rights – Standards for Respectful Companies, and Privacy Policy Changes – Some Companies Get Notification Right.

Conversely, companies that change their terms of use and privacy policies without notice, add features that impact your privacy, security or safety without notice, that default (or later change) your settings to public, or are careless in their protection of your information, show their true colors[i].  These companies often find themselves in the crosshairs by privacy advocates, the FTC, and even Congress.  These companies knowingly exploit you and your information for their next buck.

Why use a company or service that doesn’t respect you?

Figuring out which companies respect your privacy, security, and safety isn’t rocket science – my bet is you’ll know within 5 seconds of apply some basic criteria to sort the companies you use into respectful vs. disrespectful buckets.

Why use a company that doesn’t put you, the customer, first when respectful companies can be found in every category of online service? Though they may not be the most popular choice today, you have the power to change that.

If enough people ask themselves why they’re staying in an abusive relationship with a company that doesn’t put them first two things will happen. The most popular companies will quickly become the ones that put users first, and disrespectful companies will quickly change their tune and show greater respect in order to avoid collapse.

Understand the power you command in the internet economy.

What value does a social network, a search engine, a dating site, a shopping site, a gaming site, etc., have if it has no users? None, zip, zero, nada.  To understand this, look at the fate of MySpace. The once “unbeatable” social network bought by News Corp. for $580 million in 2005, was dumped last week for $35 million because most users left.

In no other venue do consumers wield as much power as on the internet because in the internet’s business model you, the consumer, are the core commodity. Without consumers there are no advertisers. No shoppers. No information exchanges. No matter the current size of an internet company, if users leave the company is effectively dead.

Right now, the public remains a sleeping giant, but naptime is over.

If you want a better internet experience, if you want to be respected, protected, secure and in control online it will only come by rewarding companies that do the right thing. Make a commitment to only use companies that treat you as the valuable commodity you are, with the respect you deserve, with the controls in your hands (not theirs), and shun sites that fail to measure up.

Make companies earn your business. If even 5% of internet users demanded respect, the internet world would stand on its head to provide it.  The power is in your hands, which sites will you use?


[i] Note: Not all companies who are hacked have been careless with your information, but when a company like Sony stores information like your passwords in clear text (unencrypted) it represents a shoddy disregard for consumer safety.

The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy

July 9, 2011

The first sentence of this article on LifeHacker says it all; “Keeping your Facebook info private is getting harder and harder all the time – mostly because Facebook keeps trying to make it public.”

With 700 million users – and the parents of users – valiantly trying to keep up with Facebook’s ever shifting exposure tactics (a.k.a. their privacy policies) checking the Always up-to-Date Guide to Managing your Facebook Privacy by Whitson Gordon should become a recurring monthly calendar event.

I’m serious. Given the rate of new feature rollouts/information exposure opportunities, a once-a-month check to ensure you aren’t sharing as much as Facebook would like needs to be as automatic as paying your bills.

If you’re a Chrome user, you’d be wise to also consider downloading the free Internet Shame Insurance app created by another Lifehacker, Adam Pash. This tool “adds privacy reminders to Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail to help you avoid the most common online communication faux pas. The extension sits in the background and springs into action only when you’re about to post a status update or reply all.”

My only point of disagreement with Gordon’s Always Up-to-Date Guide is with the sentence ,“Despite plenty of user complaints, Facebook still hasn’t caught on to the “opt-in” philosophy”. This isn’t a dull-witted or slow moving company that still hasn’t caught on to respecting consumer’s privacy. Rather it’s a company who knows damn well the wishes of its users but blatantly chooses to ignore these in favor of more revenue.

To learn more, see my blogs Privacy Policy Changes – Some Companies Get Notification Right and Your Internet Safety and Privacy Rights – Standards for Respectful Companies.


Privacy Policy Changes – Some Companies Get Notification Right

July 7, 2011

It’s time to demand honest, clear notices that come well in advance of Privacy Policy changes to give consumers an opportunity to opt out, protest, or take some other course of action.

Facebook users learned last week that their privacy had received another ‘haircut’. This latest round of Privacy Policy changes gives Facebook the right to sell your information to other companies in a clear profit-trumps-privacy equation.

Adding insult to injury, the company chose to minimize the press coverage – and number of consumers who would hear of the changes – by delaying their notice until after press deadlines on a Friday – for more information on the latest changes see Facebook privacy changes would share user data with other sites.

These practices are unacceptable. It’s time to demand a change.

Most companies, including flagships Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo!, go to great lengths to protect your privacy, have clearly understandable policies that don’t change every time you turn around, and clearly respect their users.

Geni.com, a genealogy site, goes even further and embodies the proactive approach to policy changes. Not only do they make their privacy practices clear on their website, the following email was just sent to their users giving very clear, advance notice about changes to their privacy policy. It’s so impressive, I’ve attached the entire email; it is well worth your attention. Click the image to see in full size

Geni.com site richly deserves the accolades they’ve received from PC Magazine, TIME, and CNET for being a great website. Their advance notification of policy changes to each and every member (and they strengthened their privacy protections – what a thought!) has now earned them a far humbler, but rarely given, award – the LOOKBOTHWAYS seal of approval. Congratulations Geni on being a shining example of transparency and consumer respect.

We encourage all companies with a web presence to employ consumer safety and privacy best practices in every aspect of their development, testing, support, and within their consumer services.”

As a percentage of companies, those who exploit consumers are but a fraction, but the tremendous reach of Facebook, and others with less than stellar track records like Google, means that most of the US population  (and a significant number of global users) are adversely impacted by their actions.

Sending users an email notification of any upcoming policy changes is easy and ethical. Sites already store every registered user’s email address, and email provides an excellent opportunity to clearly explain changes – including graphic representations of complex concepts – and provide links to where they can learn more, or ask questions.

The Radicati Group estimated that the number of emails sent per day in 2008 were around 210 billion, so for most sites sending an email to all their users would barely be a blip. But for huge sites that feel sending several hundred million emails would be prohibitive, there is a clear alternative; use a notification screen in front of every user (once per user) at least one week in advance of the changes that requires their action, or the action of their parent, before proceeding. For those who did not log on during the notification week (or longer time period), the notification should be changed to inform them of the changes that did occur so they can take action at that time.

Will providing clear notification annoy some users? Of course, so do seatbelts but they protect consumers from clear risks.

You have the right to an informed online experience. You have the right to set your own terms for your online experience. You have the right to expect online products and services to guard your safety and privacy. Learn more about your rights in Your Internet Safety and Privacy Bill of Rights.

As consumers you can—and should—vote with your feet if the experience you’re having on a service doesn’t meet your expectations. Even Facebook has had to beat a retreat when enough consumers rioted.


Facebook Rolls out New Feature – Using Same Old Tactics

June 19, 2011

“We should have been more clear” Says Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes, responding to criticism about the deployment of the company’s new feature called Tag Suggestions without first notifying the users. Tag Suggestions is a facial recognition feature that allows users to identify an individual across multiple photos.

Sure you can turn off this feature, but it’s on by default.  The defense seems to be “if you don’t like it you can turn if off”, but that’s really the whole point. Users should not have to find a feature they don’t know exists to turn it off – after the feature has already rolled out and their images possibly tagged.

The Facebook apology (“we should have been more clear”) rings particularly hollow as this follows a long history of implement first; weather the protests; sound contrite but don’t change anything; wait for people to give up fighting it – and if that doesn’t work, reluctantly pull back.

Remember Beacon? This ‘feature’, launched in late 2008 took details about purchases a user made and by default shared that information making it visible to all their friends. Under extreme pressure Facebook finally made it optional then, nearly a year after its launch, they were forced to close it entirely after they lost a class-action lawsuit by furious users.

Facebook Privacy Settings. Can you say oxymoron? At least once a year Facebook ‘updates’ it’s privacy settings to expose more of your information than ever before. You can see this clear erosion in a blog posted in April 2010 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation titled Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline. These updates usually come after tremendous consumer protest and investigations by government bodies in the U.S. and abroad (you can thank the Canadian Privacy Minister and the EU for some of the restraints Facebook has had to bow to)

In fact, it was only a year ago that we heard nearly the same apology over another set of privacy encroachments, when Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s said, in what might have been one of the biggest understatement of 2010″We just missed the mark”. That statement, and this week’s “we should have been more clear” are non-apologies. As Peter Kafka commented on the 2010 incident “After weeks of noisy complaints about Facebook’s newest privacy issues, Mark Zuckerberg used an op-ed in the Washington Post to reverse course and beg his users for forgiveness. Hah! Not really. Zuckerberg’s 528-word memo might seem contrite, but only if you skim quickly. Read closely and you’ll see that it’s a classic nonapology–he’s sorry that Facebook “move[d] too fast.”

What’s really at stake here is money.  Every single piece of information about you has financial value. Too many consumers think that using a company’s “free” services is free. They aren’t. It just means the company makes money in some other fashion.  Facebook (like other ‘free’ companies) makes money by advertising. The way they attract advertisers is by providing advertisers as much information as possible about you so they can target the most relevant market segments.  This means collecting as much information as they can about you = more money.  Given this financial model, Facebook’s intrusion of consumers’ privacy is no accident; it’s the key to their financial growth. If you look on Facebook’s advertising page you’ll see this clearly spelled out:

I am not opposed to companies making money. I am opposed to them doing so using information they did not give consumers a full understanding of how it would be used, or giving consumers the notice and ability to block the collection of new types of information IN ADVANCE of rolling out new privacy encroachments.  That’s just unethical.

Facebook has learned over their long history of introducing new features without informing users that in most cases, memories are short. After the initial furor subsides users accept the new settings. It was for just this type of behavior that the moral of the frog placed in warm water, vs. the frog placed in boiling water was created.  Letting encroachment occur incrementally because you are too complacent to address each new infringement allows Facebook to take every last shred of your privacy.

As users you need to demand rights or you won’t have any. It is for this reason  I periodically publish your ‘bill of rights’ as internet users:

Consumer Internet Safety and Privacy Rights – A Standard for Respectful Companies

ALL Internet users have the expectation of a safe Internet experience, and respectful companies strive to provide quality safety and privacy options that are easily discovered and used by consumers.  Your safety and privacy, as well as the safety and privacy of your family on the Internet should be core elements of online product and service design.

In a nutshell, online consumers should demand these rights (I’ve highlighted the ones specifically relevant to this incident):

  1. Establishing safety and privacy settings should be an element in the registration, or activation of a specific feature’s, process.  This includes informing you in easily understood language about the potential consequences of your choices. This allows, and requires, you to make your own choices, rather than being pushed into hidden, default settings. 
  2. During the registration or activation process, articles of the terms and conditions, and privacy policy, that might affect your privacy or safety, or that of a minor in your care, should be presented to you in easy to understand language, not in a long, complicated legal document in small font.  
  3. You should expect complete, easily understood information and age appropriate recommendations about every safety and privacy feature in a product or service.
  4. You should expect to easily report abuse of the products or abuse through the products of you or someone in your care.
  5. You should expect a notice or alert if a significant safety or privacy risk is discovered in an online product or service you or someone in your care is using.
  6. The provider needs to publish on a regular basis statistics demonstrating how well the company enforces its policies.  Such statistics should include; the number and types of abuse reports, number of investigations conducted, and number and type of corrective actions taken by the provider.
  7. When services or products are upgraded, you have the right to be informed of new features or changes to existing features and their impact on your – or your child’s – safety or privacy in advance of the rollout. 
  8. When the terms of use or privacy policy of any provider are about to change, you have the right to be informed in advance of the changes and their impact on your – or your child’s – safety and privacy.
  9. When a provider informs you of changes to their features, privacy policy, or terms and conditions, they should provide you with a clearly discoverable, way to either opt out, or block the change, or to terminate your account.  
  10. When terminating an account, your provider should enable you to remove permanently and completely all of your personal information, posts, photos, and any other personal content you may have provided or uploaded, or that has been collected by the provider about you.

 To disable Facebook’s tagging feature:

Go to your Facebook Privacy Settings, under the Account menu

  1. Click “Customize Settings.”
  2. Under the heading “Things Others Share,” click on Edit Settings next to “Suggest photos of me to friends.”
  3. Switch the “Enabled” menu to “Disabled” and click “Okay.”

Give the Gift of Internet Security

December 10, 2010

This holiday season LOOKBOTHWAYS LLC has teamed with McAfee to create a Facebook application so you can give the gift of safety to friends and family. Our goal is to help reduce the number of unprotected consumers – and computers – accessing the internet.  The application is free, your gift choice of a security service is free to the recipient, and you get to wrap your gift in a selection of beautiful eCards.  Nothing says I care better than protecting those you love.

I’ve blogged here many, many times to underscore how critical it is for consumers to have up-to-date security in place on your devices – and I do mean all your devices, including any smartphones – and your routers, firewalls and home Wifi.

Unlike your toaster, the internet is not a plug-it-in-and-go experience. Failing to use security software is like trying to keep your family safe in a home with no locks on the doors or latches on the windows. It’s that simple. Without this basis for protection, you simply will not be able to protect your safety or privacy, your identity or your money.  See links at the bottom of this blog to learn more.

How to send your eCards and Gifts:

  1. Go to the Holiday eCard tab on McAfee’s Facebook website.
  2. Follow these 3 simple steps:
    1. Select an eCard of your choice
    2. Select a gift from McAfee to include. Choose between:
      1. McAfee Security Software
        Help your friends and family stay safe and secure – give the gift of online security with a free 6-month subscription to McAfee’ security software.
      2. McAfee WaveSecure
        Ensure your friends and family protect their mobile devices. Give them the gift of a free 7-day trial of McAfee WaveSecure for complete protection and control of their mobile device and data.
      3. McAfee SiteAdvisor
        Make sure your friends and family search safely online. Give them the gift of free McAfee SiteAdvisor’ software that provides color coded safety ratings that warn them before they click on a risky site.
    3. Personalize your eCard and send – this will post your card for all your Facebook contacts to see.
  3. You’re done – unless you want to also send the card to friends and family who are not on Facebook.

To share with others via email:

  • Create an email and include all those you want to share the card with.  (See my blog Respect Others When Sending Email to a Group, to learn how to protect your friend’s privacy when emailing.)
  • Copy the URL to the greeting card. You can either pull the eCard’s URL from the link on your Facebook page, or you can copy it from the open card. (See arrows in graphic for locations).
  • Send the email. Recipients do NOT have to have Facebook accounts to see the card or receive their free security software gift, but you will need to give them an alternate place to download the software from (the link will take them to Facebook).

Learn more about the need, and the ways, to secure your internet experiences:

This is one gift we want to see be shared as broadly as possible – pay it forward.


Worst Facebook Posting Gaffes

November 10, 2010

In an interview for Forbes.com, Linda Criddle, President LOOKBOTHWAYS and the Safe Internet Alliance outlined the most common mistakes consumers make when interacting through social networks.

To read the full article, click here. Read on for an excerpt of Linda’s comments.

Most of the advice about what not to do on Facebook “is falling on deaf ears” says Linda Criddle, president of the Safe Internet Alliance, “there’s a disconnect between the advice and the actions.”

Criddle points out that at one time she had just 23 friends on LinkedIn. If you added the friends of her friends, the network was several thousand people. Adding the friends of those friends, she got to three-quarters of a million people. “Once you’ve shared something with any friends, it’s in their power, not yours, how far it goes. These friends may have their sharing set to public,” warns Criddle.

There are no records of how many thefts have been committed with the help of Facebook profiles or other social networking sites. Notes Criddle, “There’s not a place on the police report for ‘enabled by information found online.'” But police are increasingly aware of the problem, she says, and the FBI is also getting up to speed on Internet-enabled crime. The challenges: These are not topics that most officers learned about at the police academy, and as municipal budgets are cut across the U.S., fewer officers are having to do more work.

The safest thing to do is to put your privacy settings on the least public option possible–and still think twice before you friend strangers or post telling personal details.


Could Facebook Go the Way of MySpace?

October 18, 2010

The Wall Street Journal has caught Facebook in flagrante again This time, WSJ reports, in a front-page expose that the most popular applications, or “apps,” on world’s No. 1 social-networking site  have been selling users’ information—including access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies.

The abuse affects tens of millions of Facebook users – including those who set their profiles to the strictest privacy settings.

ALL of the 10 most popular apps that Facebook’s 500m users play or use to share common interests have been selling user’s information to outside companies. Three of these companies, including Farmville with 59m users, have also been selling personal information about a user’s friends, which means whether you personally used these games or applications becomes irrelevant – if you have a friend who played, your information was likely grabbed and sold as well.

Though the practice of reselling consumer information breaches Facebook’s rules, policy enforcement is clearly lacking when it is the Wall Street Journal, not internal proactive monitoring, that discovers the abuse of consumer information. Confronted with the WSJ expose, a Facebook spokesman said on Sunday that “it is taking steps to “dramatically limit” the exposure of users’ personal information.”  But that comes well after the horse left the barn. To understand just how rapidly that information is sold and resold, see the screenshot taken from a WSJ article at the bottom of this blog.

This expose comes on top of a law suit over Facebook’s own now-discontinued practice of sending users’ data to advertisers without users’ knowledge – a case also brought to light by the WSJ last May. Facebook had been sending Facebook ID codes to advertisers under some circumstances when users clicked on an ad. The codes could then be used by the advertisers to look up individual profiles, which could include a person’s real name, age, hometown, or other details. Facebook has since discontinued the practice.

Attention, Facebook execs: remember MySpace! It used to be considered unstoppable, but as soon as the company became synonymous with sexual predators and scams, the vast majority of users left the site – and what’s left? A shadow.

Consumers, know your strength. Online Companies don’t make money primarily by selling advertising — they make money selling access to YOU, and information about YOU, to advertisers. You and your information are top commodities in the online world.

Think about it: other than its servers and code, what is Facebook’s value? It’s the 500m users they have to attract advertisers and advertising dollars. If Facebook’s users left the site, what would Facebook have left? Just a bunch of servers and code.

The lesson is that if you don’t like the way you’re treated, and you choose en masse to migrate, internet empires topple.

Consumers hold the ultimate power in a model that makes you the commodity, but you don’t yet know it, or how you can wield that power.

How can the Internet become more responsible regarding consumer privacy? Three things that haven’t happened need to happen:

  1. Consumers need to understand how and why their information is being used – and when it is being exploited. Until  prominent disclosure of each company’s policy regarding user information is mandatory, the question of what is being disclosed will run underneath the collective consumer consciousness.
  2. A watchdog organization needs to be established, to which consumers can turn to see how various companies treat their data, their privacy and their safety. The WSJ article series lays a strong foundation for this, but it’s a one-off effort, not the sustained oversight needed. The Safe Internet Alliance has proposed taking on, or helping to create, this role, but it is still far from accomplishing that goal or getting stakeholder buy-in. In the absence of self-regulatory or a consumer watch organization, this role will need to fall to a government body like the FTC.
  3. Consumers need to find a way to collaborate better. It’s a united we stand, divided we fall scenario where any one user doesn’t make a difference to a company wielding 500m users; but 5 million organized users – or 100m users – demanding change can make even the largest company quail. I’m confident that at least 100m users would stand together in outrage over what’s happened to their data, and the data of their friends. They just need a rallying point.

I am not opposed to online advertising — it’s what funds our ‘free’ use of internet services. What does concern me is knowing which companies are tracking me and how they are doing so, understanding the privacy elements that are in place to protect me, and being able to opt out if I choose to do so.

We consumers played a role in the creation of this ad-driven internet model. The dot.com bubble burst of 2000 happened because internet companies built their content and services assuming we would subscribe to use their services and thereby make their companies profitable. But we didn’t want to pay for subscriptions —  we wanted everything to be free. Somehow we forgot that free doesn’t pay the bills, let alone turn a profit.

We forced internet companies to either go bankrupt, or find a new revenue model that would extract money from those willing to pay, and that happened to be the advertisers. What internet companies quickly learned was that the more targeted ads could be, the more advertisers were willing to pay them for access to their users.

It doesn’t take a leap to understand how we’ve come to a place were you and your data are commodities, and where the environment makes ‘shoplifting’ your data (taking it without your knowledge or permission) very enticing.

Which brings us back to the start of this story:  how Facebook’s top applications providers have taken up the practice of stealth exploitation of your data; how Facebook’s previously indulged in stealth exploitation of your data; how your your Facebook privacy settings have changed time after time under your feet (leaving your data information exposed); and how thousands of other websites follow the same practices. Not to mention the dozens of data aggregator and advertising sites who snap up your data knowing full well you did not give your permission for it to be sold or bought.

To learn more, see my blog posts Know Which Companies Track You For Behavioral Advertising?, and Ad Stalking – When Ads Follow You Online, and the WSJ series What They Know that outlines how companies track and share your information. I recommend you search the WSJ list to look at the behavior of any sites you use.

Already this morning I’ve received a flurry of calls and emails from consumers asking what they should do. My advice? Stop using these applications, demand your information be removed from their sites, then let Facebook,  your Attorney General and the FTC know of your outrage.

Since contacting Facebook can be difficult to accomplish, here is the phone number to Facebook’s customer service: 650-543-4800  and Fax: 650-543-4801

Click here to find your Attorney General and how to contact them

Click here to file a complaint with the FTC.


Website’s Rights and Responsibilities – They are Far More Than ‘Fine Print’

October 18, 2010

It’s been a while since I looked at Facebook’s fine print, but knowing they recently made some adjustments I thought I’d check them out.

I’m favorably impressed. These are far clearer and more navigatable than when I last reviewed them. I was especially pleased with their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities page which clearly lays out the terms that every user is expected to abide by.

If you are a Facebook user and you haven’t read the responsibilities that you have agreed to adhere to, do so now. If you’re a parent or guardian of a minor and they use, or are hoping to use, Facebook, this is a must read-and-discuss document.

With privilege comes responsibility

Help youth understand that using any online service isn’t a ‘right’ its a privilege extended to them under very specific conditions laid out by the companies. Just because a service is free does not mean users are free to do what they’d like while on it.

In this case, it’s Facebook that grants users the opportunity to use their site provided users step up to the responsibility of doing so. Coupling the privilege and responsibility elements of website, or web service, is a critical cognitive step in developing socially responsible digital citizens.

It is a step that hasn’t been articulated clearly enough.

It begins with adults accepting responsibility

Though kids can exert a great deal of pressure, our responsibility as parents and caregivers is to model the behavior that will help minors in our care become fully capable, honest, mature adults in all aspects of their lives.

However, thousands (tens-of-thousands?) of parents who know their children are too young to use Facebook, or other sites with age restrictions, let them do so anyway. This sets the unfortunate precedent that accepting responsibility, or acting responsibly, is optional.

If youth are told they can blithely ignore the age requirement, why would they hesitate to ignore other requirements – like acting civilly towards other users or respecting copyrights?

Our collective online experiment is still in its infancy. How we set up behavioral expectations will cast long shadows.


Facebook Updates While Driving? C’mon!

September 16, 2010

General Motors’ OnStar division has developed a system that provides drivers the ability to record audio updates that could be posted to a user’s Facebook page. The system would also allow drivers to hear their friends’ status updates read to them by a computerized voice. OnStar says the idea reflects society’s growing desire to be connected at all times.
What could possibly be so urgent to post or read on Facebook that it would require a driver’s immediate attention?

Research from the University of Utah found that distraction from cell phone use while driving (hand held or hands free) extends a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. I’d need to see some hard data to convince me that the distraction level wouldn’t be similar for those listening to posts or adding their own posts on a Facebook page.

As late as last week, OnStar was apparently still deciding whether it will make this service available to drivers or not. “The company will not implement a new service simply because it’s technically feasible, it has to be the right thing to do for the customer,” OnStar said. “All of our technologies are rigorously evaluated prior to launch.”

Company president Chris Preuss says OnStar has data showing there is no correlation between pushing a single button and vehicle crashes, and justifies the service by saying people will continue to send text messages in cars and update Facebook statuses from their phones, so the company decided to let them do it “with safety in mind”. “I don’t think we’re at all engaging in activities that are going to make it worse,” he said. “We’re absolutely engaging in activities that will make things better.”

If we accept the argument of ‘people will do it anyway’, why don’t we apply it to speeding, drinking while driving, and drag racing on residential streets? Why not enable drivers to take these dangerous actions – ‘with safety in mind’?

I get OnStar’s motivation – if nothing else, the deployment of this service should boost their core business of responding to accidents.

GM isn’t alone

GM isn’t the only auto manufacturer going down the distraction path. Ford Motor Co.’s Sync system, available in 2011 Ford and Lincoln models, is very similar. Besides allowing drivers to hear and reply to text messages, Ford’s system also allows drivers to interact with cell phone apps for things like Internet radio and Twitter.

Opponents of these technologies point to the existing body of evidence to say these systems will lead to greater driver distraction, but Ford has a different point of view. They believe that systems like these allow drivers to do things they’re already doing anyway, such as checking text messages, while keeping their eyes on the road.

Ford spokesman Alan Hall said, “Our research has shown that the most dangerous part of having these devices in your car is when they take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel.”

That flies in the face of the information on the U.S. Department of Transportation website. Distracted driving is defined as “any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing.

The site goes on to say there are three main types of distraction:

  • Visual — taking your eyes off the road
  • Manual — taking your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive — taking your mind off what you’re doing

Hmm. Does Facebooking while driving qualify as a distraction under this definition?

Following OnStar and Ford’s assertion, your eyes and hand would only have to be off the road for a tiny moment – and we don’t hear recommendations urging a ban on pushing a button to change your radio station….  But there’s that last pesky cognitive point about taking your mind off driving and focusing attention on Facebook, that’s the deal breaker.

To learn more about distracted driving, see my blog post Distracted Driving? Take the Distractology 101 Learning Challenge.

And that’s not all

GM’s OnStar team is also testing a system which would allow drivers to hear text messages read to them by the “OnStar Virtual Advisor” computerized voice. By pressing a button on the steering wheel, drivers would also be able to reply using one of four pre-written responses.

The only message your car should be sharing with you is “keep your focus on the road”.


Why Privacy Is Not Dead

September 13, 2010

The following article is written by Danah Boyd a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a member of the 2010 TR35.

It is such a valuable read, I present it here in its’ entirety.

Why Privacy Is Not Dead

The way privacy is encoded into software doesn’t match the way we handle it in real life.

By Danah Boyd

Each time Facebook’s privacy settings change or a technology makes personal information available to new audiences, people scream foul. Each time, their cries seem to fall on deaf ears.

The reason for this disconnect is that in a computational world, privacy is often implemented through access control. Yet privacy is not simply about controlling access. It’s about understanding a social context, having a sense of how our information is passed around by others, and sharing accordingly. As social media mature, we must rethink how we encode privacy into our systems.

Privacy is not in opposition to speaking in public. We speak privately in public all the time. Sitting in a restaurant, we have intimate conversations knowing that the waitress may overhear. We count on what Erving Goffman called “civil inattention”: people will politely ignore us, and even if they listen they won’t join in, because doing so violates social norms. Of course, if a close friend sits at the neighboring table, everything changes. Whether an environment is public or not is beside the point. It’s the situation that matters.

Whenever we speak in face-to-face settings, we modify our communication on the basis of cues like who’s present and how far our voices carry. We negotiate privacy explicitly–“Please don’t tell anyone”–or through tacit understanding. Sometimes, this fails. A friend might gossip behind our back or fail to understand what we thought was implied. Such incidents make us question our interpretation of the situation or the trustworthiness of the friend.

All this also applies online, but with additional complications. Digital walls do almost have ears; they listen, record, and share our messages. Before we can communicate appropriately in a social environment like Facebook or Twitter, we must develop a sense for how and what people share.

When the privacy options available to us change, we are more likely to question the system than to alter our own behavior. But such changes strain our relationships and undermine our ability to navigate broad social norms. People who can be whoever they want, wherever they want, are a privileged minority.

As social media become more embedded in everyday society, the mismatch between the rule-based privacy that software offers and the subtler, intuitive ways that humans understand the concept will increasingly cause cultural collisions and social slips. But people will not abandon social media, nor will privacy disappear. They will simply work harder to carve out a space for privacy as they understand it and to maintain control, whether by using pseudonyms or speaking in code.

Instead of forcing users to do that, why not make our social software support the way we naturally handle privacy? There is much to be said for allowing the sunlight of diversity to shine. But too much sunlight scorches the earth. Let’s create a forest, not a desert.

Danah Boyd is a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a member of the 2010 TR35.


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