Who’s tracking me online the most: Google or Facebook?

In a year, how many times have Facebook and Google tried to track me while I was browsing the web? (Note: I’m not even subscribed to Facebook, I barely go to facebook.com).

June 3, 2012:

May 30, 2013:

Google: 32968

Facebook: 36328

PS: You too can block these with the adblock filters from antitracking.net. However, the domain is going to expire. If there are enough flattrs, I will renew the domain. If you are interested in the domain, please contact me ASAP.

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If you’re looking for something more advanced: Try Disconnect.me extensions.

Digital Freedom: the legal way done right?

Twitter’s Response to WikiLeaks Subpoena Should Be the Industry Standard

The court order came with a gag order that prevented Twitter from telling anyone, especially the target of the order, about the order’s existence.

To Twitter’s credit, the company didn’t just open up its database, find the information the feds were seeking (such as the IP and e-mail addresses used by the targets) and quietly continue on with building new features. Instead the company successfully challenged the gag order in court, and then told the targets that their data was being requested, giving them time to try and quash the order themselves.

Twitter and other companies, notably Google, have a policy of notifying a user before responding to a subpoena, or a similar request for records. That gives the user a fair chance to go to court and try and quash the subpoena. That’s a great policy. But it has one fatal flaw. If the records request comes with a gag order, the company can’t notify anyone. And it’s quite routine for law enforcement to staple a gag order to a records request.

That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow.

On the Internet, when the software we use (even Free Software like identi.ca), we rely on multiple services providers. Free Software and Open Standards can help shaping a digital space in which centralization is the exception. Our current DNS-system for instance, is a centralized design right now (even though it’s intelligent design technically to prevent bad things from happening without others noticing).

However, Free Software isn’t the only parameter we have to take into account to preserve our freedoms. I think that in cyberspace, the legal way done right looks like what Free Software and open standards achieve: less centralization or power on the intermediary or the provider, more on the end user. Fortunately, this leads to more freedom for the netizens, but also to more responsibility.

If Twitter fails on this part, fortunately, it hasn’t on the legal side. (Contrary to Paypal, Amazon, etc.)

But is it enough? What do you think?

Google Buzz, bad start, privacy

Google recently launched its new product, Google Buzz. There is no denying that it attempts to compete with Facebook and one has to say Google has good arguments there. Obviously, with the number of services Google provide to people, it makes a big amount of information to share. Interconnect everything, give it a name stolen from your competitor Yahoo!, add a cool Google logo and here you have Buzz.

And I have to say that, even if it is far from perfect and finished, it is not so bad technically. Its ability to centralize external data empowers this channel of sharing information (and add to that open APIs, it has a big potential).

But however, the buzz was not so much about technical qualities, but more about a social, even moral issue: privacy. It is outstanding to see how far Google has failed the start of Buzz. Privacy issues were raised very early, and for very good reasons. Making the followers list public was quite an irresponsible move, since it nearly meant making public the names of people to whom you send the more emails (in private).

The first consequences followed (see F*ck you, Google, the article by the Guardian.)

Google is widely responsible for that. Emails are part of private correspondence. Google would never have published the recipients of your emails. Although that’s what they did without noticing with Buzz lists (plus with all the content they automatically shared, e.g. from Google Reader.)

Wired has created an interesting survey: “What Buzzeth you About Google Buzz?”.

Nevertheless, I would like to remind something… including about this very answer (survey top #2 answer):

Breach of Trust
by Anonymous

I am a lawyer. The names of clients, witnesses, investigators, and expert witnesses are all confidential, and Google just breached the trust that my clients have in me to keep ALL of their information confidential. I signed up for email. Not social networking. We can no longer trust Google. They do not appreciate our privacy. Lawyers must immediately cease using Google provided services since they breach our client’s privacy.

First, this lawyer’s behaviour is very clumsy, if not irresponsible. When you have a moral (and professional) obligation to keep your conversations private, confidential and secure, you don’t give away this responsibility. But this lawyer did, by charging Google of this responsibility. Which reasons can explain that he could trust Google for that? What is the point of having all those laws about client-attorney secrecy, if the lasts give it away? It also reminds me of the story of this gun dealer from Belgium, busted easily by feds when Google gave his emails to the authorities.

I can admit that you can trust Gmail as your postman. In real life anyway you have to trust the guy who caries your message. However, you don’t give all your data to him, nor all the information, neither the whole responsibility of protecting your privacy. Trust means mutuality. Where is mutuality between you and big Google?

Second, mails and emails are one thing, all the information shared by Buzz are another. Once Buzz has centralized all the data Google can share about you, one suddenly wakes up and notices how much information he gave away. All this information is far from out of reach for Google, it is only a few clicks away, without you noticing, without even your control (or so little).

My opinion is that, on privacy concerns, Google’s nuisance power is only the power we, users, give to it, by giving away all our data and by giving up on protecting our own privacy (which is everyone’s responsibility).

Meanwhile, Facebook also goes on Google’s strategy. They launched their chat XMPP server, a big competitor for Google Talk. So, to be optimistic and positive, that make a lot more people using XMPP/Jabber, good news!

Translated from French: Google Buzz, départ manqué et vie privée.

The end of privacy on facebook

At last, privacy is becoming a hot issue, in a world where everyone is tracked by companies and by the State, and in which information is shared more easily through networks. We can now potentially share everything with the whole world in an instant. The Internet is now accessible by almost every mobile phone.

Obviously, the consequences are huge, not only technically, but also on our behaviour. Social practices evolve with technologies, so is our conception of privacy. We are now willing to show more, to publish more. For my generation, it seems like the complex of privacy or intimacy is now gone.

Or, is it?

Maybe not. Because in spite of all these practices of sharing almost everything on the Web, recently the issue of privacy has risen. Politicians in France came up with a “right to oblivion” which consists in allowing everyone a kind of absolute “property” on everything that is published by (or about) you on the Web.

But very recently, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg claimed:

“The Age of Privacy is Over”

This echoes the changes in privacy settings and privacy policy that Facebook has undertaken in December, for which a lot of people are complaining. They are now concerned about the respect of their privacy, after having published so much things.

It’s not that I’m particularly enjoying this trend towards less privacy and more publicity, I am myself a hardcore advocate of privacy (which is the reason why I use encryption for my emails and do not use Gmail). But however, I am really welcoming this change in the Facebook policy. Here’s why.

Let’s have a look at what happened. In the beginning of December, Facebook updated the privacy settings with new default options which were seen as less “protective with privacy.” Since a lot of people are using the default options, a lof of things published, which were intended to be accessible only to a restrictive list of people, called “friends;” suddenly went more public. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s pictures were then publicly available (and it was certainly not a mistake).

So how did we get there? What explains this strategic change at Facebook?

The first mistake was to even consider in the first place that there is such thing as privacy on Facebook.

Facebook is about sharing. The only major difference in its concept compared to other services like YouTube is that the sharing is not focused on content (YouTube is focused on videos), but it is focused on individuals. The way streams are organized is not as much on what is said, as to whom and by whom it is said.

Nevertheless that does not change the fact that whatever is shared, is public. It maybe to a restrictive audience in the first place, but it is public, especially when you have more than 50 “friends” (which is the case for almost everybody). So from there, I find it’s particularly incoherent to concern about privacy, because such a privacy is illusion and in contradiction with Facebook’s utility.

The argument that there was a kind of implicit agreement between Facebook and its users that what is published should be kept private is pure nonsense. It is true that in the beginning Facebook was only for students and so it was a restrictive enough network. But it is a long time since Facebook is not a Harvard community anymore. It’s now a worldwide company.

And like every company of this size, you do not control it, you do not own it. Behind, there are commercial incentives, and certainly not poeple without ulterior motives… People who used to think Facebook was compatible with privacy were wrong.

Because technically privacy needs certain rules and practices to be protected. Think of the issue of private communication (snail mails, emails, instant messaging). Why do you use an envelop when you send a letter? This is a technical measure you take in order to protect your own privacy.

On the Internet, we also have laws to protect privacy (or at least we try). The problem is that everyone forgot to take care of their own privacy. Why is almost nobody using encryption when sending an email?

On Facebook, such precautions cannot exist because you would not control them. And even when you think you are in control of your data, you are not. Because all your data are in their databases. You cannot trust them on that. You have no means to make sure that your privacy is respected. Moreover, it is nonsense to give up the respect of your privacy to others, even more to a business that is based on advertisement and marketing your data.

If you go on with trying to keep things private on Facebook, you will end up with problems every single time they change something. And since they don’t have a very strong business model right now, it is likely to change again. My feeling on this is that Facebook needs to be more open and tends to look like Twitter: more public, more audience, more information, more sharing… more advertisement.

My advice is that you should always keep in mind: everything you publish on the Internet will be public, especially when you don’t control your publication with your own trusted server. And whatever concerns your intimacy should not be on the public Web. You don’t need the Web to share your photos with true friends, you have emails or instant messaging (e.g. jabber).

Finally, if you want to enjoy social networks you have to accept the way it works. Like everything social, it can be the subject of social studies, or economic interests, or marketing. And what is social on the Web belongs to the public sphere. Your privacy does not belong to the public sphere. Accept that, and publish whatever you want with maximum openness and you will see how much you will enjoy websites like Facebook without being worried for your privacy.

This was previously published in French on my personal weblog.