December 06, 2010, 10:35 AM — It’s been a hell of a year for consumer privacy, or the lack thereof. From Facebook leaking personally identifiable information to advertisers, to data brokers harvesting reams of user information on social nets, to Google’s Wi-Fi slurping, 2010 may be remembered as the year the privacy chickens came home to roost -- and quickly got roasted.
Now Congress is debating new privacy laws and the FTC has weighed in with proposals for a No Tracking List to thwart nosy Web advertisers. The agency has also called for sites to create privacy policies a wee bit shorter and more accessible than, say, Facebook’s 5,830-word privacy opus. Not surprisingly, the online data industry immediately began trash talking the FTC’s ideas, calling for even more ‘self regulation’ and forming yet another industry consortium, the Open Data Partnership, to avoid a Federal smack down.
[ See also: The 10 biggest mistakes people make on Facebook ]
Apparently, the 10 years online data mongers have been given to come up with privacy protections that actually protect privacy hasn’t been enough. Just give them another 10 years and they promise they’ll get it right.
"At COMPANY _______ we value your privacy a great deal. Almost as much as we value the ability to take the data you give us and slice, dice, julienne, mash, puree and serve it to our business partners, which may include third-party advertising networks, data brokers, networks of affiliate sites, parent companies, subsidiaries, and other entities, none of which we’ll bother to list here because they can change from week to week and, besides, we know you’re not really paying attention.
We’ll also share all of this information with the government. We’re just suckers for guys with crew cuts carrying subpoenas.
Remember, when you visit our Web site, our Web site is also visiting you. And we’ve brought a dozen or more friends with us, depending on how many ad networks and third-party data services we use. We’re not going to tell which ones, though you could probably figure this out by carefully watching the different URLs that flash across the bottom of your browser as each page loads or when you mouse over various bits. It’s not like you’ve got better things to do.
Each of these sites may leave behind a little gift known as a cookie -- a text file filled with inscrutable gibberish that allows various computers around the globe to identify you, including your preferences, browser settings, which parts of the site you visited, which ads you clicked on, and whether you actually purchased something.
Those same cookies may let our advertising and data broker partners track you across every other site you visit, then dump all of your information into a huge database attached to a unique ID number, which they may sell ad infinitum without ever notifying you or asking for permission.
Also: We collect your IP address, which might change every time you log on but probably doesn’t. At the very least, your IP address tells us the name of your ISP and the city where you live; with a legal court order, it can also give us your name and billing address (see guys with crew cuts and subpoenas, above).
Besides your IP, we record some specifics about your operating system and browser. Amazingly, this information (known as your user agent string) can be enough to narrow you down to one of a few hundred people on the Webbernets, all by its lonesome. Isn’t technology wonderful?
We store this information an indefinite amount of time for reasons even we don’t fully understand. And when we do eventually get around to deleting it, you can bet it’s still kicking around on some network backup drives in somebody’s closet. So once we have it, there’s really no getting it back. Hell, we can’t even find our keys half the time -- how do you expect us to keep track of this stuff?
Not to worry, though, because we use the very bestest security measures to protect your data against hackers and identity thieves, though no one has actually ever bothered to verify this. You’ll pretty much just have to take our word for it.
So just to recap: Your information is extremely valuable to us. Our business model would totally collapse without it. No IPO, no stock options; all those 80-hour weeks and bupkis to show for it. So we’ll do our very best to use it in as many potentially profitable ways as we can conjure, over and over, while attempting to convince you there’s nothing to worry about.
(Hey, Did somebody hold a gun to your head and force you to visit this site? No, they did not. Did you run into a pay wall on the home page demanding your Visa number? No, you did not. You think we just give all this stuff away because we’re nice guys? Bet you also think every roomful of manure has a pony buried inside.)
ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan writes privacy policies in his sleep -- which may be why he always wakes up cranky. Catch his brand of juvenile snark at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.