Thursday, May 9, 2019

Can anyone save what's left of privacy? -- May 9, 2019 column


First came the email saying my credit card may have been compromised “at an undisclosed merchant,” and the bank was sending a replacement card.

Wait, what happened? And what’s an undisclosed merchant, anyway? When I called to find out, the customer representative said the bank doesn’t share that information.

The bank says it gets information from various outside sources – such as Visa, MasterCard and American Express and law enforcement agencies – and details about a specific breach are not disclosed, even to the bank.

That’s good, I guess, but it leaves customers in the dark.

My new card arrived promptly, and I started updating accounts where my credit card is on file for payments. That’s a downside of convenience and reward points.

We’ve all been there. No matter how hard we try to preserve a semblance of control over our personal data, we constantly lag enterprising crooks.

What we don’t willingly share on social media, companies “harvest” for their own business purposes. That word, harvest, grates on me, but, like it or not, our personal information is a commodity.

In our hyper-connected age, privacy is melting faster than glaciers on our warming planet.

Now, Congress -- after years of railing about the loss of privacy -- is holding hearings on the issue and fussing at corporate leaders. But lawmakers are divided on how to write a federal privacy law to replace our confusing patchwork of state and federal laws.  

The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down somewhat on Facebook and other mega companies that shirk their responsibilities.

Even social media and tech giants claim they’re on our side and promise – again – to do more to protect our privacy.

“The future is private,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg declared April 30, insisting he was serious.  

Facebook is negotiating with the Federal Trade Commission a fine up to $5 billion  in a settlement for failing to abide by a 2011 consent decree to protect users’ privacy.

Facebook shared the personal information of about 87 million users -- without their knowledge or consent – with Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that has since gone out of business. 

The fine, expected any day, would be the largest in American history, and may require the company to take such steps as appointing a top level privacy official and a privacy oversight committee.

It’s just a slap on the wrist, critics say.

Two senators, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Josh Hawley of Missouri, say the enormous fine is a “bargain for Facebook.” They suggest the FTC hold Zuckerberg and other corporate leaders personally responsible.

Facebook is redesigning and updating its services to encourage private messages, communication within groups and Story. Stories disappear 24 hours after they’re posted.

Other companies now use privacy as a selling point, following Apple’s lead.

“We believe privacy is a fundamental human right,” Apple’s website says.

But it doesn’t come cheap. Apple’s budget iPhone XR starts at $749.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times Tuesday: “Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services.”

Google unveiled a $399 smartphone and promised tools to help customers control their data, such as expanding incognito mode, which allows users to search without being identified, to maps and other apps. 

Our smart products already record and send back our conversations and activities – often to train artificial intelligence, but still. Amazon workers and contractors reportedly listen to consumers’ conversations with Alexa. That’s creepy.

And, Amazon’s Key will deliver your online purchases inside your home, car or garage.

All Prime members need do is allow access to their property. A promotional video shows happy people opening their car trunk, garage and front door and finding packages safe and sound. What could go wrong?

In this fast-changing world, we can’t expect the government to save our privacy. And we can’t trust the big tech companies to have our privacy at heart.

We each must decide how much we want smart machines to do for us and how much privacy we’re willing to give up for the convenience.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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