Sunday 15 July, 2012
Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TV ONE.
Internet privacy is something we're often warned about, but 'who cares?', you might well ask. So what if Facebook knows my age? What does it matter if Amazon keeps a note of the books I'm buying? As one American teenager found out when a retail store started sending her coupons for baby gear, much to the surprise of her parents, what companies do with data can have serious consequences. All the girl had done was buy certain vitamins, and the internet had put two and two together and had done the rest. Pamela Jones Harbour is a former US Federal Trade Commissioner specialising in the area of internet privacy. She's been in New Zealand this week for the NetHui conference. I began by asking her when consumers go online, can they ever be safe when it comes to privacy?
PAMELA JONES HARBOUR, Former Federal Trade Commissioner
Well, there is a risk. When consumers go online they're leaving digital trails, and so when they search or when they go on YouTube, their data is being harvested, mined and collected so that advertisers can serve them targeted ads.
CORIN So this is a massive industry you're talking about here. I mean, that data is obviously very valuable.
PAMELA Data is very valuable. In fact, our data has value and our data is a form of online currency. In fact, in 2011, behavioural advertising was a $32 billion market.
CORIN Do consumers know that their information is being dealt with in this way, do you think?
PAMELA I think consumers are becoming more aware that when they are online they are being tracked and their data is being harvested. So, yes, I think they're becoming more aware. I don't know if they are aware of the extent to which it is being done.
CORIN So if they are just being targeted for adverts, say, for pet food, or something, there's nothing harmful necessarily in that. Can we live with that?
PAMELA Potentially we could live with that if that was all our data was being used for, but again, there's not a lot of transparency in what is happening.
CORIN So we don't know if that's all they're using it for, is that what you're saying?
PAMELA That's correct.
CORIN And this is the legitimate industry. This is the industry which presumably is allowed to operate. What about criminal activity - criminals that can get hold of that data? What might they do with it?
PAMELA Well, that's another area too, data security. There are criminals who can hack into systems and take your credit card information or take your identity and get a mortgage and do all sorts of nefarious things with your data.
CORIN Is it enough, then- I mean, we hear about Facebook, so people are being warned. There's a little bit of awareness. People are being told, 'Make sure your privacy settings are in the right place.' Is that enough, or are we talking a bit more here? Do we need to go a bit further than that?
PAMELA I think that's very helpful to have the right settings on your data, but I think that consumers also should be careful about, again, using Social Security numbers or having their credit taken by online criminals. But that's a way to start, yes.
CORIN You worked for the Federal Trade Commission, and essentially your job was looking at these types of issues. How worried are you about this as a growing trend? Are we talking about Big Brother here?
PAMELA Growing trend for online criminals hacking in to databases and taking data, that is concerning. Is that happening more? Potentially that could be happening more. I think there are a lot of regulators out there that are trying to protect consumers, trying to educate them about ways to keep their data safe, so I think there's a lot of awareness. There's legislation that a lot of countries and jurisdictions are putting into place to really help-
CORIN So governments are starting to respond. And we saw this with the Federal Trade Commission's actions against Google - $22 million. That's a bit of a warning shot to these companies. They were essentially warned - 'you breached the privacy rules. That's it. You have to pay.'
PAMELA I think that's right. The $22 million settlement that we read about recently, it hasn't been announced yet; it's just been leaked. But from what I understand, Google had previously been under a consent order with the Trade commission for its failed social network service Buzz.
CORIN And you were involved in that process?
PAMELA Well, I was just leaving the Commission when Buzz was announced, and the aspect of it that was troublesome was I believe they were populating Buzz with consumers' data, but the consumers hadn't given their consent. A year later, they were put under an order by the FTC, and that means that you promise not to do anything-
CORIN Google is such a trusted brand. Their motto is not to be, or don't be evil. And yet they breached people's privacy without us knowing.
PAMELA Well, it is true that they were under order, but then with this new incident, apparently they circumvented Apple's Safari browser, and the Federal Trade Commission, from the press reports, apparently believes that they didn't live up to their earlier promise.
CORIN They say that it was an accident, don't they? They say they didn't mean to breach the privacy-
PAMELA Well, I don't know if the federal government would take that into account - 'sorry, we made a mistake'. They were under order and they breached their privacy promises, therefore they're being fined to the tune of $22 million.
CORIN We're hearing more and more about this idea of the cloud, where we put all of our data, I mean, we could put our whole home computer, for example, out on to the internet, and then we could access it from any computer around the world. This is the way of the future. This could create even more problems. Is there a risk that if we do that we open up everything about ourselves that we've got stored to privacy breaches?
PAMELA Well, there's some very very favourable aspects of the cloud. First of all, it's very efficient. You can put a lot of information there and the cost is very favourable, low cost. There are some concerns about the cloud. Security is one of the concerns. There would have to be real robust security features built into the cloud.
CORIN Is this essentially just a giant server in a desert somewhere and you just have your little safety deposit box bit of it, and you have to make sure that you trust that? Is that what it comes down to?
PAMELA Well, there are different models. There are private clouds. You're gonna pay a little more for that and you'd have more protection. There are public clouds where you're sort of in there with everyone else's data. And there are hybrids. So it depends what sort of model you're looking at.
CORIN But you were talking before about a $32 billion industry, and obviously so many people wanting to get our data. So that data in the cloud would be extremely valuable, wouldn't it?
PAMELA Well, that's exactly right. The issue would be companies mining our data while we're in the cloud. And that is probably happening, yes.
CORIN Are young people more vulnerable here? Because they've grown up with the internet and they just seem to throw stuff on Facebook. Are they more vulnerable to this type of thing?
PAMELA Well, that's an interesting question, because, you know, they have been living with this now since their teen years, and let's fast forward until they're middle age, and their whole life would be potentially online. We'll have to see, won't we?
CORIN Do you think that in terms of government responses from what you're seeing to this issue, which is a growing issue, that the governments themselves are doing enough?
PAMELA I think the governments are very aware and they're really trying to help their citizenship to really understand privacy. They're trying to educate the consumers about privacy. I think that the different jurisdictions around the world, they correspond, they speak with one another, they are in conferences together, and so they're trying to protect their consumers.
CORIN And are you having a chance to talk to anyone in New Zealand about the privacy laws here? Because it crosses all borders, doesn't it? It doesn't matter where you are, you still use Google or Facebook.
PAMELA Yes, and New Zealand, I understand, has some privacy laws that are with the government, and the internet is a very important medium and we certainly want to get it right, and I think that these laws are very needed and very important and will really be in line with a lot of the laws in the European Union, and even the laws that the United States is hopeful that our congress will pass.
CORIN Is it conceivable one day one day that we'd have a world body to coordinate all the rules so that there is an international law on privacy, given that it can cross the boundaries and given that the cloud can be anywhere?
PAMELA Well, that's a very interesting concept, because certainly commerce is global, and if you have different jurisdictions all around the world that might not be compatible, that wouldn't be such a great thing for the economy, so I think one day it would be favourable to have compatible laws with respect to our data.
CORIN Pamela Jones Harbour, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate you coming on Q+A.
PAMELA Thank you.
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