Online tools bad for privacy

For a while now, I have been using Google Reader to keep track of RSS feeds from websites, blogs and albums that I visit regularly. I had decided it was time I used feeds rather than continually visiting the sites directly in a browser to see if anything new had appeared, and rather than choosing a feed-reading client for my computer, I thought I’d try an online client. The advantage of this is that I can access my feeds from a web browser on any computer, rather than having to wait until I’m at home. My feeds – and more importantly, information about which items I’ve already read – are available in the same way regardless of where I’m accessing them from.

Today, when I opened Google Reader, I saw a message telling me that my “friends” from Google Talk could now view feeds that I’m subscribed to. On reading more carefully, I realised it was only “shared items” that others would be able to see. I had never chosen to share any items, as I see Google Reader as an application to allow me to use RSS feeds, not as a way of telling other people what I like to read. Had I chosen to share any feeds, they would have previously appeared on a web page with a long URL that is totally unconnected to my username. While anyone can in theory view the page, in practice, only people I’d given the address to would have been able to find it (it isn’t indexed by search engines either). Following today’s change, everyone in my Google Talk contact list would be able to see my feeds. Contrary to Google name for this list, “Friends”, my contact list contains all sorts of people. Gmail actually adds anyone who sends me an e-mail to that list. It’s easy to see that people could soon find that their competitors, their boss, or people they are in dispute with could suddenly see all their RSS feeds, which they previously had assumed only their real friends, who had been given the long URL, would be able to see.

Recently, social networking sites such as Facebook have been becoming more popular. I currently refuse to use these sites because I don’t like the way they work: specifically, that anyone on your “friends” list can see details of everyone else who is on the list. Now, generally, I’m not too concerned about privacy online. I write on my website under my own name, I contribute to forums and newsgroups on various subjects under my real identity: all things many people do under aliases. Yet I have to draw the line at other people seeing my contact list or a list of what articles I like to read. That’s analogous to letting someone flick through my address book, or watch over my shoulder to see what I’m reading in the newspaper. I would rather maintain an e-mail address list of my contacts, and bookmark their sites or blogs using my web browser.

With Facebook becoming more popular, many people are using it to display their photographs, for example. They might say, “the photos of my trip are on Facebook – I’ll add you so you can see them.” Unfortunately, that means people have no choice but to use Facebook if people they know are using it, regardless of whether they like the service. (In a similar way, I’ve had to use MSN Messenger for years, despite not wishing to use services provided by Microsoft. If other people are using it, I have no choice.) When I was looking into Facebook, it appeared that there is no option to hide contacts from other contacts. However, there was a suggestion that it’s possible to add individual contacts to a list of people who can only see a “limited profile”, which can be made to contain only a minimum of information. This would have to be done for each person who was added as a “friend” individually, if the idea was to keep the contact list private.

The trouble with the all the privacy settings on site such as Facebook or Google Reader is that they soon become quite complicated. It’s difficult to figure out exactly how the account is set up. If we were talking about settings to change the layout of a page or the colour scheme, it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t quite right. However, revealing too much information to the wrong people could be extremely damaging. Yet it’s very difficult to determine exactly what other users can see, as the owner of the account can’t see their own profile through the eyes of others. The only sure way of doing that is to register an entirely separate account, and switch between the two until everything is set up as desired.

The other major issue is that the online provider can change the service at any time. What if they suddenly decide, as Google have just done with Reader, that more information should be shared? A previously hidden list of contacts could suddenly become visible. Carefully fine-tuned options could become obsolete. Of course, the issue of providers amending services doesn’t just affect privacy. Features of the service could be altered, or even disappear. As users of Yahoo Photos recently found out, services can be discontinued altogether.

Facebook is already no stranger to controversy after changing the way the site works. In October, Facebook profiles began to appear in search engine indexes, with users only having a month’s warning to opt out. Then more recently, they introduced a new advertising system called “Beacon”, which tracked products users had bought on other websites, then displayed ads related to the products on their profile. This staggering invasion of privacy caused a backlash from users, and a 50,000-signature petition caused Facebook to make the system an opt-in one (although I can’t imagine why anyone would want to opt in to that!)

The only way to avoid these potential pitfalls is to avoid using online services altogether. Perhaps it’s better to use a mail client, RSS reader, and bookmark manager on your own computer? To make it a bit more convenient when out and about, an alternative would be to store any information on your own web hosting. That way, it’s possible to control what other people can see, and what is only visible to the owner, safe in the knowledge that this can’t be changed on the whim of some service provider. The same is true of other services such as blogs and photo galleries: many people use sites such as Blogger, but who’s to say Google won’t change that service for the worse too? A self-hosted blog means no-one else can change it.

Removing control over people’s privacy should put some people off using services such as Google Reader. However, even if they have real concerns, popular services such as Google and Facebook know only too well that they already have sufficient market share to ensure people continue to be tied to their services whether they like it or not, with people having to sign up it they want to keep in contact with others. Perhaps we should start to look at these companies in the same, unfavourable light that we look at Microsoft, then abandon the lot of them to regain control of our own online lives.

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