Ind. Study - Privacy (Final Blog Post)


Today's technology make social sites a gold mine of information for marketing companies or political interest groups or potential employers. (Colin McKay, Director of Communications, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, November 2007)

The final topic of "Privacy" completes my blogging for this Independent Study.  Wow - what an eye-opener this topic has been!  Like many other people online today, I learned that I definitely do not pay enough attention to the privacy policies and user agreements I automatically scroll down through to the bottom to click "I Accept" or "OK".  A YouTube video generated by online user PrivacyComm, Social Networking and Privacy, on behalf of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is brief, but packs quite a punch.  The quiet, sombre voice on the video describes how social networking sites, "package your data based on trends," and then large commercial operations use this data to learn everything they can about you, like your hometown, hobbies, interests, favourite TV shows, political views, and anything else you add to your profile.

As I worked my way through the privacy videos on YouTube offered by Google's Senior Support Engineer, Maile Ohye, I must admit I did learn a lot about the types of information Google collects, first and third party cookies, and web browsers.  But, along the way I couldn't help but ask myself if I was getting the whole picture about what information they collect, how they use and analyze it, and how long they store the information.  I found it equally as interesting to read the "Highest ranked comments," and regular comments by others that had viewed the same videos.  I believe Google owns YouTube, so I do commend them for not removing all the negative comments surrounding Google's privacy videos.

Every time someone creates a search query using Google there are three different pieces of information they collect:

  1. Google analyzes your search patterns, claiming to give you better results.
  2. Google keeps your IP address (similar to a web phone number).  From this they can tell your general location and which provider used to connect to the Internet.
  3. Google also stores cookies (small information file) on your computer to help remind them of your preferences.  Ohye states that all search engines and most websites store cookies on peoples computers.
When all of this information is collected or stored on your computer, Google then keeps a log of every search and visit you make online to create a "Log Record."  The search query, your IP address, cookie, browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc.), and date and time of your search are stored in this Log Record.

I still ask myself if this is really all the information they collect from and about people.  Ohye claims they don't collect personal information in one video, yet in another she states, "Most of the time there's no personally identifiable information in a cookie file - no name, email address, or phone number."  So, which is it?  They don't collect personal information or they don't always collect personal information?

A cookie, is a cookie, is NOT a cookie - first party cookies versus third party cookies.  First party cookies allow search engines and websites to identify my computer every time I return to one of them and remembers my information, like usernames and passwords, so I don't have to enter them each time.  Remembering my login information is convenient when I am accessing these sites from home, but then when I am using a different computer it can be quite challenging to remember the correct login information for different sites.  I try to change it up, as "they" say not to use the same username and password for everything, although it would be a lot more convenient, but unsafe, if I did.

Third party cookies travel between my browser and the site of a company that's posting an advertisement on the site I am checking out.  Third party cookies will actually remember what advertisements I have seen and how often I've seen them.  I know from past experience that turning off cookies altogether inhibits the display of certain information, like the announcement pop-up feature on e-class and having your computer advise you every time a cookie is sent can be really annoying.  It would definitely be worth setting up our computer to refuse cookies from certain websites versus refusing them altogether.

I also did not know what Google Chrome offered that was different than Google.  Apparently the Chrome version protects your privacy and security even further and Ohye states the "Incognito Mode" is a, "private mode for surfing the web so sites you view are not logged on your computer and all cookies and records of downloads are automatically cleared when you close your browser window."  Additionally, your computer is protected from sites that try and steal your login information (phishing sites) and sites that try to infect your system (malware sites).

After watching the video on "Social Networking and Privacy" that I mentioned at the beginning of this post and reading the user agreement that was quoted from a social networking site, I realized I had never gone through any privacy policies or user agreements on Facebook, which I belong to.  McKay, Director of Communications at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, believes social sites are not about the user, they are about your information.  He states, "Every time you add more data about yourself, it's like you're answering a survey."  This prompted me to take a look at my Facebook profile to see what information I had added about myself which I was relieved to find out was only my name, hometown and marital status.  McKay reminds users of social networking sites that people will judge you based on the information you share on social sites and suggests to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are their details about my life I want to keep personal?
  • Who might view this information?
  • Will this information reflect well on me in a year? In 5 years?
  • Would I want my best friend to know this? My boss? My mom?
I remember coming across a video on YouTube about Facebook etiquette that I shared with some high school students, but realize now it would be suitable for people of all ages.  I have friends that post pictures and updates that need to consider the above questions.  The following video "Facebook Manners and You" is now an Official Webby Award Honoree for Best Writing and Comedy: Individual Short or Episode and focuses on relationships and the use Facebook.

One of the suggested videos that displayed after watching the above was from the Today Show where host Lester Holt asks Omar Wasow ( about the "exploding" nature of social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.  It is also an informative, brief video for people of all ages, not just focused on relationships and social networks.  Wasow offers the following advice when involving yourself in online communities:
  • If you don't know them, don't friend them.
  • Behave online as you would offline.
  • Share, but don't share too much.
  • Respect other people's privacy.
  • Remember, Facebook is still the internet. Your post/picture can end up anywhere.
At the end of the video Holt asks Wasow about the "25 Random Things About Me" list that made its way through the world of Facebook and why people felt the need to comply.  I remember getting this list forwarded to me from a few of my friends and also wondering, "why?"  Why would people want to share that kind of information with EVERYONE on the Internet?  It is just as McKay said - every time you add more information about yourself online, it's like your answering a survey for social networks, advertising companies, religious and political groups.

I also decided to check out the Privacy page on Facebook, something I have never taken the time to look at after McKay had quoted one from an unnamed social networking site.  And there it was, word for word, on the Facebook privacy page.  This was a BIG learning moment for me, realizing I need to do a better job personally and professionally seeking out the privacy guidelines and user agreements in the online environment.  Here is one of the Facebook privacy guidelines, which includes the quote from McKay in italics:  

Information you've shared with everyone - as well as your name, profile picture, gender and networks - could be seen by anyone on the internet.  Please be aware that it will be visible to anyone viewing your profile, and applications and websites you and your friends use will be able to access it.
For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos ("IP content"), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook ("IP License"). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

The privacy page is very lengthy and I can understand why people would not take the time to read through it all, even though it is the responsible thing to do.  After I read through it all once, I went back and made the following observations:  
  • How We Use Your Information - 8 subtopics
  • How We Share Your Information - 12 subtopics
  • How We Protect Information - 3 subtopics

The topic of privacy was surprisingly a lot more interesting than what I had anticipated.  I learned more than I thought I would, from both perspectives of those claiming to take steps to protect your privacy and those organizations prompting you to be more aware and responsible of your personal rights.  I will now take the time to examine privacy policies and user agreements when joining new social networks, and to share the information with friends, family, and colleagues.