Privacy Riles Google, Facebook, Apple

Privacy appears to be at an inverse relation to the information superhighway, and as the public cries for swift and effortless communication, a simultaneous cry is welling for consumer technology giants to pump the brakes.

The companies at the forefront of the communication revolution: Google, Facebook and Apple.

Time Magazine called these three “technology’s standard bearers” and “the three most innovative companies in Silicon Valley.”

The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed them “Tech’s Big Three,” and extolled them for being, “arguably the three most influential companies in consumer technology today.”

And their influence, in sheer numbers, is staggering: Steve Jobs announced at the WWDC event on June 7 that 5 billion apps have been downloaded and that Apple has paid $1 billion to app developers; according to the Facebook statistics site, there are 400 million active Facebook users (more than people who live in the United States, the 3rd most populous country in the world); and inquisitive Web users flock to Google in droves, plugging 91 million queries into the Google search bar each day, according to Search Engine Watch.

These numbers attest to the voracious societal hunger for fluid communication; however, a palpable trepidation has flickered up, both in the media and in the minds of individuals across the globe.

What is this concern? Privacy.

Who are the companies receiving the blame? Google, Facebook and Apple.

Google began making headlines in May because roving street cars collecting information for Google’s Street View service in Europe collected 600 gigabytes of private information from people whose Wi-Fi’s weren’t encrypted.

According to the New York Times, the data may include “personal information like e-mail and bank account numbers,” and was collected in 33 European countries and Hong Kong.

Consumer watchdog groups have also drummed up criticism, asserting that the Internet giant breaches privacy boundaries in its pursuit of targeted advertising.

Most recently, Apple has been criticized because Goatse Security, a hacker group, breached the iPad through a flaw in the Safari Web browser, exposing the personal e-mails of Rahm Emanuel and Mike Bloomberg, along with 114,000 others.

And Facebook grappled with a firestorm of its own when riled patrons of the site pitched complaints that Facebook violated their rights to confidentiality with altered privacy settings.

The company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is known for his philosophy of openness and has always pushed ‘Facebookers’ to embrace a sharing mentality. In fact, when a user goes on the Web site to change their privacy settings, his signature of influence is noticeable as it nudges, “The more you share, the more social the experience.”

Though Zuckerberg recently buckled to the pressure from users and adjusted the privacy settings to suit, experts warn that data mining techniques can still reveal private information.

According to an article in the Times, researches from the University of Texas at Austin took a user’s friends and patterns of interaction and were able to extrapolate private information about the user, all the way down to their social security numbers.

Though the methods used by the researchers involved complex statistical algorithms, vigorous data analysis and the crossing of that information with other databases such as hospital birth records, the study is telling in how private information can be exploited on the Web.

Amidst all this, it appears that internet users are becoming more cautious with Internet privacy, especially the youth.

A 2009 study conducted by Pew revealed that 71 percent of social media users have changed their privacy settings. The study also found that youth aged 18- to 29 were more likely to limit their personal information online (45 percent) compared to those aged 30- to 49 (33 percent) and those aged 50- to 64 (25 percent).

The study alludes that individuals are adapting to Internet privacy issues by ensuring that their information is limited in scope and guarded behind privacy barriers.

Still, the Web has demonstrated a stalwart aversion to reticence, and as Marc Andreesen, a Silicon Valley mogul, pointed out in the Time Magazine article, “The Web is so vast it defies attempts to control it.”