One of the purposes of this blog is to clear up technology myths. I ran across an interesting article that just screamed to be written about in this blog.
This piece of “news” was released a few days ago: EXCLUSIVE: W.H. collects Web users’ data without notice.
In a nutshell, the article says “The White House is collecting and storing comments and videos placed on its social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube without notifying or asking the consent of the site users, a failure that appears to run counter to President Obama’s promise of a transparent government and his pledge to protect privacy on the Internet.”
The article gives reactions from various groups who feel there is something sinister going on.
Bear with me. This post isn’t about politics. It’s actually about technology and business practices. And why this is actually not news.
Go read the article. I’ll wait here.
Hi welcome back!
Ok so why is this not news?
For three reasons.
1. Websites track visitors. Period.
This is something that site owners and tech people have understood for years. This is something that most web surfers have come to understand. I thought this was something all journalists understood too because it has been in the news nonstop since the 90s. However, not everyone still understands what is tracked or why. So let’s clear that up.
Websites are typically tracking the following information:
- Your browser
- Your operating system
- How you arrived at the website (search engine, typing it in, etc)
- What country you are in
- What ISP you’re using
- What pages you visited
- How long you stayed on the site
- What keywords were used that bring people to the site
- If you generated any error codes (i.e. arrived at our site via links to dead pages)
What websites are not tracking:
- Where you went after you left the site
- Your name
- Your physical address
- Your email address
- Your phone number
- What you look like
- How you voted
- If you are in your underwear right now
- Or any other personal information
In other words, the information in the first list is not tied to any information in the second list. So basically, we see a lot of random statistics about your computer and maybe what you did on our site, but we don’t know WHO did this or anything about you personally. We just know, for example, that someone arrived who was on a computer that ran Vista and they were browsing using FireFox and they arrived via a link from Google. We don’t know that the person’s name is Bob or Sally or anything else about them.
2. Blog, Twitter, and Facebook posts are correspondence and we’ve all consented to what will happen to that correspondence
Just because these are in digital format doesn’t make them any different from letters you mail. Just because it goes out a bit differently than email still doesn’t change the fact that this is correspondence between you and another person or persons. Once you’ve sent this information out, it is theirs to keep.
I can make archives of what I get from others in my social networking sites. I already do actually. I have a personal account with LiveJournal and periodically I will download an archive to my hard drive. This contains not only what I have written, but comments others have made on what I write too. I am under no obligation to tell those people that I’m making an archive of MY journal with their comments. Further, they consented to this practice when they joined the social network and chose to post.
Any website you interact with tends to be a database driven system. Therefore any comment you make in my blog, or any other, is automatically stored in a database. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a way to display the comments. If you comment in another person’s blog, you are giving this information to them in the same way as if you had handed a person a paper letter. It is a given that some people will want to keep these interactions.
3. Organizations maintain copies of correspondence
If you write a business, nonprofit, or government agency, odds are good this information will be kept on file. Often, this information is kept for liability reasons. I keep correspondence between myself and clients so we can refer back to old conversations to clear up any confusion. I keep correspondence from people that request quotes and other information too. This covers me in the event any false claims are made.
As for government, I’ve always assumed that they keep copies of anything I write. In the case of the White House and members of Congress, there is a history of crazy people attempting to kill government figures. It makes sense that they would have been tracking this information for decades.
Some of this correspondence could head off an attempt by giving the Secret Service the information needed to go before a judge and get a warrant for arrest or for a wiretap. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has a briefing that discusses this. From the DHS website: http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/privacy/privacy_pia_dhs_ect.pdf
As website owners, it is important for you to learn to read your site’s statistics. Your web host should have a means for you to access those statistics. You may be surprised at what you find. Some of you may even sign up with Google Analytics as a way to track site statistics too. Remember that you own the content on your blog, and other social networks. What you do with the information you have been given is up to you. As businesses and non-profits, it is important that we archive any correspondence between us and the general public. This can be important later and could even prevent legal problems later if someone claims X when the situation was actually Y.
When you consider that these are standard business practices that have been openly been in effect for years, there just really is nothing sinister to to see here.