By any standard, 2010 was not a good year for privacy rights. While a growing number of people and companies seem to be concerned about the issue of protecting the most intimate details of our lives, technology is making it harder and harder to do so. Whether it be something as innocent as Google "accidentally" collecting 600 gigabytes of unsecured private data while driving cars around the country in search of wifi networks, or something as sinister as tracking company RapLeaf using sophisticated technology to create incredibly detailed profiles of people (including names, email addresses, shopping habits, voting history, and so on) and then selling that data to advertisers; this has been a year full of headlines about privacy violations.
So, in the spirit of hoping that 2011 brings more privacy and more protection, we at TigerText are proud to present the following... a list of the 5 worst Privacy Violations of 2010.
5. Foursquare -- The popular social networking tool that allows users to "check-in" and let their friends know where they are at any given moment ran into a real embarrassment in June. A programmer in San Francisco by the name of Jesper Anderson figured out that he could write a program to keep track of where Foursquare users were going by examining the pictures that Foursquare publishes every time someone checks-in at a location. He says he captured close to a million check-ins in just a couple weeks. This means that his simple program knew where thousands of Foursquare users were going at any given moment of the day. He knew if they were out shopping, at home hanging out, at work, or just about anything else. His program was even able to get around Foursquare's privacy settings that were supposed to only allow "friends" to know when someone was checking-in. It was a bit like he had a GPS on each Foursquare user in the San Francisco area. Talk about scary! Foursquare was able to fix the bug and now has a setting that keeps your location private from outsiders if you want.
4. Karen Owen -- Owen was just a fun-loving, athlete-worshiping co-ed at Duke University until she decided to write a "mock thesis" on her sexual exploits with members of Duke's swimming, lacrosse, and tennis teams. She claims she only meant to send the paper to a few of her friends, but it somehow got loose and ended up with millions of people viewing it all over the internet. The "thesis" included photos, names, and explicit details of Owen's trysts with the players. There is no question that these athletes' sex lives never should have become public. As for Owen, she claims she never meant for the document to be leaked and become a viral sensation. However, there is talk that she will get a book deal out of it and Law & Order: SVU did an episode that closely mimicked Owen's story. Still, one has to wonder how Owen will feel in 20 years when she has to explain to her children why they cannot do an internet search on her name.
3. Tyler Clementi -- Tyler was an 18-year old freshman at Rutgers University. After his roommate streamed a video of Tyler having sex with another man, Clementi (who had been trying to keep his homosexuality secret) committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The story attracted national headlines and incited a strong debate about cyber-bullying and how to control it. The tragedy here was not just Clementi's life being cut short, but that Clementi's roommate Dhuran Ravi and another Rutgers student being charged with invasion of privacy and perhaps a hate crime. It served as a painful reminder that our youth simply have no idea of the consequences of the internet usage. No story more starkly demonstrated the power of modern technology to capture the most intimate details of our lives and lay them bare for the world to see.
2. Facebook Changes Everyone's Privacy Settings -- In April of this year, Facebook quietly changed the privacy settings on every single user's account so that the default was to make almost nothing private. As a result, unless you actively changed your setting, details like your birthday, gender, place of birth, religious beliefs, friends, family members, schools attended, and other intimate details would be available to anyone who wanted them. It was a terrifying decision to leak information from the organization that so many of us have trusted with the story of our lives, our likes, and so much more. Facebook quickly backpedaled and forced all users to choose their privacy settings, but the damage had already been done. Facebook, already with a sketchy reputation, soon became known as one of the worst privacy abusers.
1. Wikileaks -- Wikileaks claims that it exists to ensure transparency, but we are rapidly learning that transparency comes with consequences. The US government admits that its standing in the international community has been hurt by the leak of many confidential State Department communiqués. International aid organizations say some of the Wikileaks data has put civilians who work with them in danger. Even some journalists have criticized Wikileaks for its data dumps and displaying a lack of editorial control over the data it leaks. Most recently, Wikileaks claims it will next target a major American bank, an implication that has already caused stock in Bank of America to decline, costing shareholders millions of dollars. Wikileaks founder says he plans to leak data that "could take down a bank or two," a situation that would cost taxpayers billions of dollars in bailouts. What's more, all the publicity surrounding Wikileaks may be encouraging an atmosphere where individuals think privacy violations are to be celebrated and fun. In an era where technology is making access to private data easier than ever, nothing could be worse.
There you have it, the rogue's gallery of the worst privacy abuses of the year. It is not a pretty picture.
Here's hoping 2011 brings us something different.
Jeffrey Evans is the CEO of TigerText, a text messaging service that offers and promotes increased privacy standards in communication.