Facebook and Google: Contrasts in privacy

Facebook and Google have both been faced with privacy concerns, and the responses have been polar opposites

The headlines recently have been dominated with news of online privacy. Facebook has implemented changes that affect the privacy of status updates, and Google made headlines for its apparent disregard for privacy.

The difference between how Facebook and Google have addressed privacy issues offers a stark contrast. While Facebook has quickly responded to criticism and backlash, and has implemented additional changes to try and accommodate concerns, Google CEO Eric Schmidt dismissed privacy concerns entirely.

Facebook has faced challenges with privacy and what sorts of controls it has in place to ensure that users can exert some control over who is able to view their status updates, photos, events, and other Facebook entries. The Canadian government pressed the issue and succeeded in pressuring Facebook into changing a handful of practices to address privacy concerns.

As Facebook implemented changes this week, which were previously announced and anticipated--a change of pace for Facebook changes, there was immediate backlash. Facebook is struggling to figure out how to capitalize on member status updates for real-time search to be more like Twitter, and it is going through some growing pains to establish the right mix of sharing and security.

Google is also faced with constant criticism and concern from privacy advocates. Google is the monolithic Big Brother of the Internet, crawling and indexing every last byte of data that exists and presenting it to the general public in a matter of milliseconds through its various search offerings.

The difference between Facebook and Google as it relates to privacy is that Facebook appears to listen to concerns and respond by implementing changes to try and address issues, while Google seems to be dismissive. The Google response is to just stress why you should trust it, or why you shouldn't care about privacy.

In a CNBC interview, Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained his stance on online privacy "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines --including Google --do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

The problem with that point of view is that it assumes you can only be concerned about privacy when you are doing something illegal or unethical. It doesn't take into consideration the myriad ways that data can be inadvertently leaked or compromised by search engines like Google.

Just because executives and managers want information to be private, it doesn't mean that they are trying to hide anything like shady accounting a' la Enron, or illegal pyramid schemes a' la Madoff. It simply means that some information is sensitive or confidential for a reason.

For businesses that rely on Google Docs or Gmail, there is a level of trust there that Google will respect the privacy of that data and protect it from unauthorized access. Comments like those made by Schmidt provide a reason to think twice about using Google for any sensitive or confidential communications.

As Google plants cookies on PC's to expand the scope of personalized search, or becomes the focal point for Internet traffic with its public DNS, it is privy to a great deal of information which could be used to reach conclusions. It is important for Google to take privacy seriously.

Facebook and Google are facing many of the same challenges. Whether you like the changes introduced by Facebook or not, its hard not to appreciate its attempts to respond to concerns rather than taking the Google approach that unless you wear a tinfoil hat or have terrorist connections you have no right to be concerned about privacy.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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