The biggest privacy scandal of 2011

Privacy was all over the news this year, and there are plenty of scandals to choose from. What was the most outrageous? Read on to find out.

It’s been an amazing year for privacy on the Internet – and by “amazing” I mean horrifying and gratifying in nearly equal measures.

Shaun Dakin and Jon Pincus of Privacy Camp, a group that holds privacy “unconferences” each year, polled privacy wonks across social media sites, asking them to name the biggest privacy story of 2011.

Number One on the list: The growth of what the ACLU and others have dubbed the Surveillance-Industrial Complex. From the use of automated license plate scanners by the Washington DC police to the expansion of TSA screening to Amtrak rail stations, from the doubling of Federal wiretaps to the booming $5 billion annual market for off-the-shelf spy gear – it’s been a banner year for spooks of all varieties. Not so much for the victims of those spooks.

The fact is, like everything else in technology, sophisticated spy gear that was once available only to government agencies has dropped in price to the point where virtually anyone can play NSA spook. Expect to see more privacy scandals in the coming years built around amateur spies.

My top pick for Privacy story of the Year was actually number two on Privacy Camp’s list – or, if you want to be technical, numbers two through five: Location, Location, Location.

It seems like every other mobile app wants your location, even if they have no business knowing it. But that’s only the beginning. Apple and Microsoft both got caught storing location histories on their handsets, while the Carrier IQ fiasco made it clear how easy it is for telecoms (and law enforcement) to siphon all kinds of information off your mobile. Shopping malls in Virginia and Southern California are experimenting with schemes that allow them to track users’ movements through their shopping centers via their cell phones.

At this moment the US Supreme Court is deliberating in the case of United States vs. Jones; their decision will determine whether the police have the right to attach a GPS tracking device to your car without a warrant. I don’t have a lot of confidence the Supes will rule in our favor.

Location is really the big kahuna of privacy issues. Once somebody knows where you’ve been and where you’re going, there’s very little privacy left to protect. Once some entity creates a database of your movements, it’s sure to be used in unintended ways, almost never to your benefit. And there are absolutely no rules about what private companies can do with your location data – none, zip, nada. It’s a situation ripe for abuse.

Other notable privacy stories? The News Corp voice mail hacking scandal landed high on the list (the people behind that bit of outrageousness need to be covered in honey and staked to an ant hill, imho). Google+’s well meaning but bungled attempts at policing the names people use on its service. The friction caused by Facebook’s “frictionless” sharing.

The gratifying part? People are finally talking about privacy in concrete ways – and not just the usual suspects (EFF, EPIC, CDT, ACLU). We might get some  Congressional action about mobile privacy (though probably not in an election year), and who knows? Maybe even an endorsement of fundamental privacy rights, a la the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference’s Social Network Users Bill of Rights.

The biggest clue that privacy issues have turned a corner and emerged from the “you have no privacy left – get over it” attitude that has prevailed through much of the last decade: All the spunky little startups like Tru.ly and TrueRep and Diaspora and Reppler that are trying to make a business out of it. I haven’t seen this much activity on the privacy-as-a-business front since a decade ago, back when Doubleclick tracking was the boogieman. I don’t think they’ll all succeed, but I’m happy somebody’s trying.

That may not be the biggest privacy story of 2011. But let’s hope it’s at least a contender for 2012.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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