Trying to Padlock a Cloud

Everything I know about internet privacy I learned from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

A season one episode of that show begins with Larry David’s best friend Jeff lying in a hospital bed just prior to going under for some serious surgery. He calls Larry to his bedside, hands him a key to his house and tells him where to find his porn collection. In a closet next to the TV there is a linen closet where eight adult tapes and some magazines are hidden behind a sliding wooden door. Jeff tells Larry that he wants him to retrieve this collection while he is in surgery just in case something goes wrong and he doesn’t make it. His wife, he explains, “is not a big fan of the porn.”

In the same episode, Larry uses a landline telephone, takes notes with a pencil and paper and asks someone to fax him directions. Times have changed. But Jeff’s concern for privacy might be more applicable than ever.

If Jeff was lying in a hospital bed today and had some things to hide, would he even know where to begin? More and more often, our worldly or private possessions – from porn, to passwords, to bank accounts, to photos, to blog posts and status updates – are not hidden in secret compartments or under our mattresses. They’re in the cloud. And if Jeff is anything like the rest of us, he probably hasn’t given a whole lot of thought to the legal or privacy related issues connected to moving his life online.

From a legal perspective, Jeff’s privacy was lot more secure in the back of his linen closet. The data you store on servers hosted by Google, Microsoft and others is subject to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which hasn’t been updated since 1986. Law enforcement officials merely need a subpoena (as opposed to a warrant) to get one of the online giants to give up your personal data. Google and Microsoft know this is a problem which is why they’ve teamed with other corporations and advocacy groups to urge lawmakers to get with the times.

“The U.S. Constitution protects data in your home and on your PC very strongly,” said Mike Hintze, an associate general counsel at Microsoft.

“We don’t believe that the balance between privacy and law enforcement should be fundamentally turned on its head,” Mr. Hintze added, simply because people now choose to store documents online rather than in their homes.

Our laws are lagging behind technology. And our personal concern for these issues could be lagging behind both.

Here are just a few items for you and Jeff to consider as anything – from the most private data to a drunken tweet – is pushed into the cloud.

– It’s highly unlikely Jeff has ever read the privacy policies or terms of service agreements on any of the sites he visits. For example, fewer than one out of thousand people even glance at the terms of use on an ecommerce site.

– Jeff likely shares small details about himself across several sites. He should note that: “Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number.” Something as seemingly harmless as Jeff’s birthday can ultimately become part of a marketing profile, or one element of a puzzle being pieced together by identity thieves.

– If Jeff has ever used an online coupon, he’d likely be pretty surprised by how much his favorite retailer knows about him.

– While some big companies are concerned about your legal rights when it comes to privacy, it’s important to be aware that many social networking executives think of privacy as something antiquated. And of course, those companies are better off when more of your data is made public to search engines and marketers. That’s why in Confession #16, I wrote that I Never Tell Zuckerberg Anything.

– Jeff might think he’s now surrounded by millions of oversharing kids who don’t care about the sanctity of his porn collection or anything else. Well, recent studies indicate that young people say they are as concerned as the rest of us about privacy. The question is whether our concerns ever have an impact on our behaviors. We’re all sliding head first down the black diamond slope that is realtime, social web. Who has time to think?

– Both Facebook and Twitter are looking to extend Jeff’s sharing and liking to websites across the internet. It could make these sites more social and more personalized. It also means that more site owners and marketers will know about Jeff’s browsing history, what he likes, who he knows, etc.

– Even if he’s not quite ready to worry about web profiling or identity theft, Jeff will likely want to watch his words when he shares messages via Twitter or Facebook. Last week, the Library of Congress anounced they will maintain an archive of every Tweet ever posted. This content will be made searchable by Google. We all might have a lot of explaining to do someday.

– If he wants to give a little more thought to privacy in the age of social networking, Jeff should read Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity, a recent lecture presented by Danah Boyd at SxSW.

These are complicated issues and I offer this handful of links merely as a launching point to start thinking about what we share and where we share it. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to follow Jeff’s lead and keep the really good stuff behind a secret door in your linen closet.

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