200808151029Yahoo! has recently released a new product called Fire Eagle. Fire Eagle is an application that developers can integrate into their software suites, enabling users to identify and broadcast their geospatial location to others on the application’s network. There are many very positive features of Fire Eagle (at least relative to other applications of this nature):

* It’s opt-in
* It allows for granular, application level, sharing of information
* It keeps limited historical data – it “keeps only the most recent piece of location information it has received for each of the major levels it understands: Exact Location, Neighborhood, City, State, Country etc. If a new piece of “Exact Location” information comes in, then we throw away the old one.” (Source)
* Yahoo!’s developers anonymize user data, and assert that they will exclusively use it for system statistics as it pertains to updates and improving service (no notes on how data is anonymized, however)
* The privacy statement makes note that users need to read the privacy agreements of the applications that utilize/integrate Fire Eagle
* Yahoo! notes that their partners must consent to terms and services, and a code of conduct, and Yahoo! provides a space for users to complain if they think that a Yahoo! partner is violating their agreements with Yahoo!.

But, but, what about those third parties!?!

A BBC article that talks about this new service (Privacy worry over location data) really identifies the core privacy concern that most advocates seem to have with this service:

The problem for privacy watchers is that privacy policies across the web are all very different and using a service through a third party could raise some real issues.

This is a very, very real concern, but one that I think is misidentified by the popular media. While it’s true that people (such as myself) are concerned about the actual legibility of privacy policies (most are in complicated legalese, and as such effectively meaningless – someone can’t reasonably be expected to consent to a contract that they have no way of understanding), another (perhaps more significant issue) is that when most contracts state that they won’t share information with ‘third parties’ they really don’t clearly identify what a third party is.

Let me unpack that last bit, just a little. Let’s say that you enter into a contract/agree to an EULA with Company Alpha (Company A). Unbeknownst to you, Company A is a subsidiary of Company Big (Company B for short), who is a subsidiary of Core Company (Company C, for short). When you enter into an agreement with Company A, your information can often be passed around the rest of the corporate family without violating the contract that you consented to. Of course, the average consumer has no clue who is a member of a ‘corporate family’, and is still vulnerable to the commonplace divergent understandings of corporate privacy policies in the various subsidiary corporations. Most people are also unaware that this means that their granular data, which is on its own not terrible useful or informative about themselves as users, is drawn together to compose substantial data doubles, and that these doubles are (a) valuable; (b) used to discriminate against consumers without their being aware of the discrimination taking place.

Alleviating third-party worries

I hesitate to say that I necessarily LIKE this way of doing things, just because I’m hesitant about how facebook actually operates. That said, Facebook is releasing a new service (Facebook Connect) where the privacy settings that you establish in the Facebook environment will carry along with you to the other websites that you access. Of course, this means that Facebook will be gathering information on where you go, what you do, and so on. It also means that to enjoy a unified privacy policy that you’ll need to be a member of Facebook – you’ll need to be willing to give a corporation access to your personal data to enjoy something that you really should be able to expect a government to set up for you.

Nevertheless, Facebook’s Connect Platform may offer a way for Facebook users to enjoy a common attitude towards privacy. This is one of the solutions that Lessig notes in Code 2.0, but I remain concerned about the solution for the reasons that I addressed in my MA thesis. Namely:

  1. Without federal/state/provincial regulations, violations of a corporate policy lack a clear punitive strategy. Without a monetized penalty, corporations may be less willing to entirely abide by the codes of conduct.
  2. It makes it challenging to enjoy a granular privacy policy – I may not want to let Nike know much about me, whereas I’m comfortable telling the local government a great deal.
  3. What happens if a particular group chooses not to ‘buy-in’ to the Facebook program for their own, valid, reasonings? Are citizens to become citizen-consumers, where to enjoy their constitutional rights they are limited to the corporate brands that they see as ‘healthy’ to them?
  4. Why *shouldn’t* government be the body responsible for setting these kinds of rules and regulations, and developing the IT frameworks to allow all citizens to have consistent privacy frameworks across their browsing experience. I’m not suggesting that citizens would subsequently be required to use the government systems, or that there aren’t inherent challenges with any large body establishing a common privacy level that travels with me across the ‘net, but I’m far more comfortable with a democratically legitimated body doing this than a for-profit corporations who just wants to harvest my personal information.

Ultimately, however, I want to quickly return to Yahoo!’s own stance toward privacy and Fire Eagle. Yahoo! is being reasonably up-front, honest, and genuine with the consumer – they’re doing their job in providing the information that consumers really need to be aware of, in language that is easily accessible. Whether or not people read the privacy policy, the policy isn’t one that is so filled with legalese that it’s non-sensical to the average person. This, in and of itself, is a massive change in how the industry constructs their privacy notices, and is something that reflects well on their division of Yahoo! services.

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