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Are social media giants betraying your trust?

Matt Kapko | June 26, 2014
The leading social media companies are outraged over NSA surveillance, but would that spying even be possible if Facebook, Google and Twitter weren't collecting data and selling it to online marketers? Social media companies unintentionally opened new windows for spies to creep into our lives, and their claims of innocence are insincere.

Facebook also joined with AOL, Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo to highlight the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices. "We urge the U.S. to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight," the group writes in a letter to Obama and members of Congress.

Companies like Facebook are deflecting criticism by playing up the anti-government surveillance card while at the same time somehow managing to avoid any fallout over the collection, sale and use of personal data for advertising.

Much of that work is taking place behind the scenes without oversight and the Federal Trade Commission wants to change that. Following an in-depth study of the industry, the consumer protection agency issued a report concluding that data brokers "operate with a fundamental lack of transparency."

But to the chagrin of consumer-privacy advocates everywhere, most of their practices are legal. "Many data broker practices fall outside of any specific laws that require the industry to be more transparent, provide consumers with access to data, or take steps to ensure that the data that they maintain is accurate," FTC Commissioner Julie Brill writes in a statement that accompanied the report.

There's also the unfortunate and sometimes unfair categorizations that data brokers apply to consumers. Someone labeled a "biker enthusiast" by these firms may receive discounts on motorcycles, for example, but they could also be unfairly targeted by an insurance provider seeking signs of risky behavior.

The FTC is more bark than bite, however, so it shares the same burden as every American waiting for Congress to act. The commission hopes to reinvigorate discussion on Capitol Hill by encouraging Congress to consider legislation that would bring more transparency, consumer choice and controlled access to the data held by data brokers.

Ideas from the agency include a centralized portal, consumer access to data, opt-out mechanisms, data source disclosures, prominent notice and choice to consumers and further protection of sensitive health information. However, despite the FTC's best intentions and long-term efforts to rein in these practices, it's unclear if Congress will take up these measures in earnest.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) has led the charge in many respects, eventually introducing the Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act in the Senate in February. A related bill in the House was last referred to subcommittee in April.

Where's the Rest of the Privacy Outrage?
Meanwhile the giants in social media have been almost eerily silent on the issue, letting ad industry groups fight a battle that is partially of their own making and one that affects its users. Facebook, Twitter and others are all too happy to keep a safe distance, holding tight to every degree of separation. Even though they are uniquely positioned to demand changes from the data brokers they work with, they are effectively sitting this one, while expressing outrage only at the government's collection of the same data.


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