Daily Archives: 2009-06-18

Static Consent and the Dynamic Web

Last week Facebook announced the end of regional networks for access control. The move makes sense: regional networks had no authentication so information available to them was easy to get with a fake account. Still, silently making millions of weakly-restricted profiles globally viewable raises some disturbing questions. If Terms of Service promise to only share data consistent with users’ privacy settings, but the available privacy settings change as features are added, what use are the terms as a legal contract? This is just one instance of a major problem for rapidly evolving web pages which rely on a static model of informed consent for data collection. Even “privacy fundamentalists” who are careful to read privacy policies and configure their privacy settings can’t be confident of their data’s future for three main reasons:

  • Functionality Changes: Web 2.0 sites add features constantly, usually with little warning or announcement. Users are almost always opted-in for fear that features won’t get noticed otherwise. Personal data is shared before users have any chance to opt out. Facebook has done this repeatedly, opting users in to NewsFeed, Beacon, Social Ads, and Public Search Listings. This has generated a few sizeable backlashes, but Facebook maintains that users must try new features in action before they can reasonably opt out.
  • Contractual Changes: Terms of Service documents can often be changed without notice, and users automatically agree to the new terms by continuing to use the service. In a study we’ll be publishing at WEIS next month evaluating 45 social networking sites, almost half don’t guarantee to announce changes to their privacy policies. Less than 10% of the sites commit to a mandatory notice period before implementing changes (typically a week or less). Realistically, at least 30 days are needed for fundamentalists to read the changes and cancel their accounts if they wish.
  • Ownership Changes: As reported in the excellent survey of web privacy practices by the KnowPrivacy project at UC Berkeley, the vast majority (over 90%) of sites explicitly reserve the right to share data with ‘affiliates’ subject only to the affiliate’s privacy policy. Affiliate is an ambiguous term but it includes at least  parent companies and their subsidiaries. If your favourite web site gets bought out by an international conglomerate, your data is transferred to the new owners who can instantly start using it under their own privacy policy. This isn’t an edge case, it’s a major loophole: websites are bought and sold all the time and for many startups acquisition is the business model.

For any of these reasons, the terms under which consent was given can be changed without warning. Safely disclosing personal data on the web thus requires continuously monitoring sites for new functionality, updated terms of service, or mergers, and instantaneously opting out if you are no longer comfortable. This is impossible even for privacy fundamentalists with an infinite amount of patience and legal knowledge, rendering the old paradigm of informed consent for data collection unworkable for Web 2.0.