THE BLOG
12/15/2014 02:57 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Wordplay Run Amok: Et Tu, TRUSTe?

"Friends", "Likes", "Cookies", and now "Trust", what is happening to words we loved so much? How could one industry wreak such distortion on these heartwarming, smile producing utterances? Say it isn't so! Incredible, truly, it is so. Yes, even TRUSTe ends up not being so trusty after all. Maybe their branding manager should have reminded the powers that be that you earn trust, you don't name it. At least Eric Schmidt knows how to call it right - he picked the mantra "Do No Evil" for Google - and as it turns out, doing evil is mostly how his battleship Google operates, under the disguise of helpfulness. But TRUSTe?

TRUSTe touts that its seal of approval on a website means that said site adheres to strict compliance standards for collecting, storing, and sharing data. It's a great gimmick for endearing a site to users and TRUSTe did a bang up job establishing themselves as the must have credential that sites paid them well for. You offer eye candy and a pretty little logo to provide a sense of security. Truth in advertising however, requires more than stamps. It demands in this case, annual inspections and that is what TRUSTe promised.

I've met Chris Babel, the CEO of TRUSTe. In person he is a nice enough fellow. But for all of his talk about "honesty really is the best policy" and providing Truth in Privacy, the truth is TRUSTe offered neither reliably. While Chris travels the world paying to be on stages promoting his wares, it looks as if TRUSTe let more than 1,000 companies slip through the cracks without inspections. So these companies basically got free use of a symbol representing a "commitment to privacy" that in truth didn't.

Just in case you're wondering, the FTC doesn't take kindly to such escapades, which is why it just doled out a $200,000 reminder in the form of a fine to TRUSTe. Babel responded by writing, "And if we fall short, we admit it, we address the issue, and we move forward." You mean if you get caught, which you did. And just how do you intend to move forward? I guess we'll stay tuned. His response looked like PR babble, rather than a thoughtful statement that honestly addressed the breakdown. Regrettably, this looks plainly like an intentional slip up designed to save TRUSTe money and pad their bottom line by not allocating the expense required to inspect its client companies and their policies.

The TRUSTe lesson is one in a long line concerning companies promising to deliver on privacy then consciously failing to do so. Take WhatsApp for example. Founder Jan Koum made himself a general in the privacy war by heaping self-praise on his app because it didn't save messages on servers or store chat histories. What he didn't talk about was weaknesses inherent in the encryption technology they deployed to protect users' communications or that they were routinely collecting the IP addresses of anyone who visits their website, along with collecting information on the sites they frequent, and who they talk to and when. And lest we forget, in 2012, WhatsApp ended up in a hearing with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada over concerns that user accounts were susceptible to third parties prior to completion of the user authentication process, potentially enabling a third party to create and control accounts associated with phone numbers which they did not own.

Now that Koum's company works under the Facebook banner, can he even lead a privacy and safety conversation while keeping a straight face? After all, Facebook is the face on the Wanted poster for privacy rights violations.

Then there are Path and Snapchat. As a new social network a few years ago, PATH branded itself as a privacy innovator. Since then, its privacy aspirations have been riddled with misleading statements and illegal actions such as scraping data on minors (resulting in $800,000 FTC fines). Snapchat promised its users they could send images and videos that disappear forever after the sender-designated time period expired. Those claims would have been great if they had been proven true. Chalk up another example of a stern rebuke and fine by the FTC. Snapchat's ephemeral technology is anything but that. But do their CEOs care - or are these ruses intentional, with the ensuing fines simply being pre-calculated as a cost of creating soulless businesses duping people?

These companies try to offer you a tall glass of privacy when in truth, much of the glass is empty. As with Google and their aforementioned Do No Evil mantra, their privacy violations and millions of dollars in fines suggest that message was meant for you, not them. Facebook and Google can talk about their advancements in Privacy Policies until the cows come home, but it doesn't change the fact that at their core, these apps and sites are designed and continuously refined with privacy as a secondary consideration and afterthought. Their main thrust is data collection, and that inherently means privacy invasion.

The FTC stance is clear, concise, and correct. "If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its services to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises," said FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez.

The leaders in the next wave of privacy will come from companies that build privacy-by-design into the foundation of their wares. In doing so, it will not only protect us all, but also establish a pecking order to prevent oversights such as what happened to TRUSTe. These leaders will be in step with real online privacy advocates such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Cullen Hoback (director of Terms and Conditions May Apply), and others. Both gentlemen, by the way, are on the Advisory Board of MeWe, the revolutionary social network built with privacy by design.

People like Berners-Lee and Hoback, along with Max Schrems in Europe and others, are the real heroes who support the essential human right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, and the Fourth Amendment. Maybe therein lies the lesson. When it comes to selecting the company that serves up our communication technology, don't follow the engineering leader who places profits first and ethics second; but rather choose the thought leaders who take action to build conscious capitalist enterprises that truly benefit humanity which in turn provides for a deserved and earned profit.