As we move forward into March Madness, we look back at the hottest trending online privacy stories and discover a different form of madness. Some of the news is good, some is bad and some sends a message of hope for our future. Take a look and decide which is which:
1. Qualcomm's Online Eyes Are Watching You.
The chip maker Qualcomm recently announced that it will bundle deep learning software for smartphones within its next major chip release. The technology, called Zeroth, could enable your smartphone to recognize speech, sounds, locations, even tag you in images when you don't want to be. In other words, any anonymity you currently enjoy on the Internet could be taken away.
This isn't the first we've heard on this subject. Facebook has been using facial recognition technology for a while as has Google with its social network. But those were apps as opposed to the device itself. Imagine if your phone deprived you of privacy in what you say, where you are, and who can see you? The major problem here isn't just the loss of identity, but also the loss of control. The chips inside your device would decide everything for you. The benefits to us seem few in comparison to the service providers who pull you in so they can pull out your private information and sell it to data brokers. This is a topic that warrants serious debate in the years ahead.
2. U.S. Senate Proposes: Hands Off, Data Brokers.
Yes, there's a lot of disgruntlement towards Congress, not to mention politics, these days. But when something positive happens with the potential to help protect all of us, then we need to grab a bullhorn and shout out props. Four U.S. Senate Democrats re-introduced a bill last week meant as a takedown of data brokers. The intent of the Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act is to enable people to control how their personal information gets used. In other words, hands off data brokers; stop making money off of my life without my consent.
The bill also lets people correct misinformation about themselves. This bill comes a mere week after President Obama's poorly received privacy bill. In fact the general negative reaction to that bill from almost all parties was the driving impetus behind the bill being re-introduced. Passing this bill would be a bold move in favor of privacy. It wouldn't be a fatal blow, but it would most definitely be a stunning shot heard around the country if not the world.
3. Security Products Get a Litmus Test From NSS Labs.
It's a lot easier to say your security product wards off online threats than to prove it does. NSS Labs however, is trying to prove the opposite. The independent security testing company is releasing a testing service that lets companies see which security products are truly blocking threats and which are not.
The goal here is to provide security officers real-time information, such as we already get with a baseball game or with stock information during market hours, to let them know the effectiveness of products.
Until now companies relied on one-off reports about security products, which oddly enough, were often written by the very companies selling such wares. That's kind of like letting a chef rate their own entrees. NSS Labs claims that because it is only providing a service and not selling the same service, its product will be different. Here's hoping so.
4. Facebook's Suicide Problem.
When does a suicide prevention program become the real threat to an individual? The answer is when that program is connected to Facebook. The Consumer Watchdog organization is taking Facebook to task, calling this week for the suspension of its suicide prevention program after a San Mateo man was held for 70 hours. The man, exercising his first amendment rights, tried a social experiment with the program in which he created a post threatening suicide. Apparently, he failed the test, as did Facebook.
Sometimes the best intentions can cause the worst results. Back at the end of February, Facebook started this program to flag potential suicide victims. The whole process works off the premise of calling to Facebook's attention a potential suicidal post -- in what certainly sounds like a worthy and noble initiative. But within this there is an immediate violation of privacy -- as it is yet another analytic tool reading everything we post. In addition to this case, Consumer Watchdog also pointed out that abuse of the tool could lead to online bullying, account lockouts, and reputation damage in the event of privacy breaches. I commend any well-thought out program that tries to prevent suicide. Yet, matching that goal with the capabilities of Facebook's overreaching data-scraping technology must be very carefully instituted. What you end up with is an invasion of our rights, and perhaps the silencing of our voices in an hour of need due to warranted fear about getting in trouble as opposed to getting help.
5. Can We Reinvent Online Privacy In DARPA's Hands?
DARPA sounds like the name of a secret society. I guess in some ways it is in that the group works within the Pentagon. But DARPA, which is short for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is not into playing war games this time out. Created by President Eisenhower in 1958 as a response to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, it's had a hand in robots, prosthetics, even the building of the Internet. Now with its Brandeis program, the agency hopes to "allow individuals, enterprises and U.S. government agencies to keep personal and/or proprietary information private."
This is more of a think tank idea then an actual plan ready for implementation. In fact, DARPA is soliciting private proposals from anyone with the hope of running a series of 18-month trial phases, similar to what the pharmaceutical industry does with medication. One cannot help but wonder just how private a Pentagon sourced initiative will allow individual American citizens to be -- especially in their eyes. Yet somewhat ironically, the initiative, born out of concern over the serious hacks that have been harmful to American companies and commerce -- may indeed have an inadvertent positive impact on individual privacy protection. I'm not holding my breath.