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The Data Privacy Debate Is Just Beginning

Thanks to the NSA scandal, consumers are finally thinking about how their data is used--and potentially abused. Are you listening, tech companies?
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The recent revelations that the NSA might secretly be spying on American citizens with little-or-no cause has been an eery--if not much needed--wake up call about the need for better digital privacy standards. 

But it shouldn't have even been such surprising news. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been tracking the NSA's spying tactics for several years. Edward Snowden wasn't even the first whistleblower to alert the public to what was happening at the NSA. USA Today reported this week that there have been three whistleblowers besides Snowden that have been telling "anyone who would listen that the NSA collects huge swaths of communications data from U.S. citizens."

As the public grows more skeptical of data collection, digital privacy advocates finally find themselves in the spotlight--a position they've been craving for years.

On the flip-side, tech companies have been dragged under their own spotlight--albeit one with a more critical hue. Now more than ever, people want to know: What, exactly, are you doing with all of their data? 

Questions for Google

One of the latest companies under fire is Google. Earlier this week, a handful of digital privacy representatives from around the globe issued a public letter to Google about its latest project, Glass. In the letter, they requested more information about the product--mostly, they wanted to know how the company plans to use all the data acquired by sticking a GPS-enabled camera to someone's face.

And they had some good questions.

They wanted to know, for example, how Glass complies with data protection laws, and how they establish privacy safeguards. They wanted to know what information Google collects via Glass--and what information is shared with third parties. They wanted to know if Google has completed a privacy risk assessment. And they were curious if the company had anything planned for "the broader social and ethical issues raised by such a product." They concluded, saying:

We feel it is important for us to raise all of these concerns.  We would be very interested in hearing about the privacy implications of this new product and the steps you are taking to ensure that, as you move forward with Google Glass, individuals' privacy rights are respected around the world. 

Privacy, Please

The letter to Google came two weeks after the NSA Prism scandal came to light. Not surprisingly, the leak has put consumers on edge not just about government snooping, but also about just what exactly Silicon Valley is doing with their data. 

A representative from Abine, a Boston-based pricacy start-up that offers the DoNotTrackMe browser add-on, sent over some compelling stats to this point. To date, Abine has 5.2 million installs of DoNotTrackMe.

But in the last couple of weeks, the service has been pretty much exploding:

The rep tells me:

  • On June 14, there was a 98 percent growth over the previous week in installs.
  • There was a 54 percent average increase in installs for the week of June 10 over the prior week.

At the same time, during the week of June 10, DuckDuckGo--which offers users a purely private search bar--saw a 55 percent increase in site usage.  

FoxyProxy, a FireFox extension that lets users access the Web and avoid being tracked, saw a 48 percent increase in the bandwidth of global subscribers who use the VPN service. 

The market for online privacy is growing, too. It's tough to quantify the industry, but anecdotally, it seems, entrepreneurs are realizing that online privacy services are something people are willing to pay for. "Entrepreneurs smell opportunity" Satya Patel, a venture capitalist at Battery Ventures told The Wall Street Journal. 

Silicon Valley, Take Note

All this goes to say that a big-time privacy backash may be brewing. It's no longer an issue for just a few tech-savvy individuals and advocacy organizations. And that should give tech companies cause for concern--and a bit of self-reflection. As The Times put it:

New technologies like Google Glass are relentlessly pushing into territory that was out of reach until recently. From established behemoths to new start-ups, tech companies are bubbling with plans to collect the most intimate data and use it to sell things.

Big Data may be hot--but it only works so long as consumers decide to cooperate and share their data freely. I'm not convinced that proposition is guaranteed in the future. 




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