Monday, April 22, 2013

Facebook Home: Privacy fears or a sign of decline?

As reported across the tech news sites, Facebook Home hit 500,000 downloads in the first 5 days. However, techcrunch gave some perspective. It noted that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) had "over 5 million downloads in six days". So what is holding people back?

One possible issue is privacy. As noted in this previous post, the younger generation is privacy savvy and is opting for apps like SnapChat that don't retain pics and other personal info. So it may be possible that the not-so-hidden-cost of privacy is too high a price to pay. And many commentators have noted that this issue with respect to Facebook Home. As noted in this blogpost by GigaOm's founder, Om Malik, fears Facebook's past privacy issues will be especially problematic if Facebook can capture (and monetize) one location data. As pointed out by this can be turned off, but how many people are not going to use the map feature of their phones to keep this private?

On the other hand, is Facebook as popular as it used to be? Speaking to a colleague at work, he notes that his "tween" son is using... (drum roll please)... Google Plus! Yes, that's right Google Plus - the social network that people mocked as a possible Facebook competitor is now being picked up (anecdotally) by the youth. Although this may be anecdotal evidence, Facebook last redesign was viewed by some as an imitation of Google Plus. For Facebook's version of the story check here:

Overall, it's quite fascinating how the social media sites and tech companies wax and wane in popularity. Remember RIM? The company that could do wrong, now is on fighting (one could argue valiantly, but that could be the nostalgia in me talking.) for spot number 3 in the smartphone wars. Of course the biggest giant to fall from the public's favour is Apple with it's stock sliding from a height of $705 to a current price of just under $400.

However, as pointed out by Horace Dediu on this podcast, Facebook has effectively circumvented Google by making this the home screen on Google's real estate. He has good analysis of the whole supply chain, making an analogy of Facebook's strategy to Intel's strategy of "Intel Inside":

Furthermore, GM's back as an advertiser on Facebook. They made an exit last year, but has returned "and will take advantage of Facebook’s new mobile targeting features". So despite the slow number of downloads and potential privacy issues Facebook Home is hardly down and out.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Big Data, Facial Recognition and Privacy

In October of 2012, the FTC released these guidelines on dealing with the privacy issues of facial recognition. The publication begins with a scene from the movie Minority Report where the protagonist is offered a product based on facial recognition software. When the movie came out, this future seemed decades away. However, now it just seems around the corner. And this is primarily due to advances in data mining capabilities brought to you by the cloud and more specifically big data. One of key characteristics of Big Data (see here for IBM's definition) is being able to include data that is not just massive or fast moving, but also goes beyond the simple world of flat file - meaning it includes images.

And here comes the interesting part about privacy and big data. Think about the following scenario: you walk  into a store, the security cameras take your picture, it's uploaded to Google Images (see below for how this works), a second search is done to find out what you've posted publicly on the various social sites and then you are approached by a sales associate who has all this information about you and then can tailor its offerings to you.

Privacy regulations requires that users give consent before their information is collected. So could this simply be circumvented by posting a sign that states "By entering this premises, you consent to the store collecting your image and using that information to tailor offerings, services and the like to your online profile"?

I think so.

As I posted last week, TJX was effectively able to stop the Canadian privacy watchdog, by agreeing to encrypt the personal information it should not collect. So it does not take much for companies to persuade users (or the privacy regulators) to get what they want from their customers/users. At the end of they day, companies simply have to repeat the Capitalist mantra: "You are free to go somewhere else if you don't like our policies". Never mind that all the companies have the same policies, which means you don't have any choice except to wear a mask when you enter the store. And that is not advisable because it may be result in being billy clubbed or tazered by security guards! Or to be a little less dramatic, the store will simply offer to refuse you service if you wear a mask.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Killing of Google Reader: Proof that Privacy Matters at Google?

Google announced last month that it was going to kill off Google Reader. According to the post, the reason that was given that there was a decline in the number of subscribers. For the past few years, Google has been consolidating its offerings and reducing the number of properties that it has out there. For example, it retired Google Wave, which was seen as a way to revolutionize the way people conversed with one another. The other trend in Google' s consolidation is to get its subscribers into its social network; Google Plus. So another theory is that Google killed Reader because it wants to drive more traffic to its social network - as they have done with things such as YouTube, Blogger, etc.

However, allthingsD reported that another factor that led to Google retiring reader was due to compliance with privacy. Citing "sources" the elimination of reader, "[w]asn’t just a matter of company culture and bigger priorities...Google is also trying to better orient itself so that it stops getting into trouble with repeated missteps around compliance issues, particularly privacy".

If what sources are saying are true, the factoring of privacy costs into its product releases represent a significant maturation from a privacy perspective. Google got in trouble with the FTC because it failed to comply with privacy procedures with Google Buzz and had to submit to biennial privacy audits for 20 years. In other words, Google can probably include the "kill decision" as "audit evidence" as proof that they are complying with their commitment to privacy.

So is this proof that the US overall approach to privacy creates a more privacy compliant nature than the one used in Canada? Although more research would be required to answer this question, we can contrast the proactive nature of Google with respect to privacy and how TJX reacted to its breach of privacy policy in Canada. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada's took issue with TJX's (which operates Winners in Canada) the use of driver's licenses during the returns process. In summary, TJX should not be collecting driver's license information because it has nothing to do with buying clothes, etc at the stores! However, instead of stopping the process, the company merely agreed to stop storing in an unencrypted format. In other words, they basically ignored PIPEDA and continued with business as usual.