A Privacy Bill of Rights proposed for the US

The continuing deterioration of privacy and multi-party security due to short-sighted and unsustainable practices within our industry has begun to have the inevitable result, as reported by this article in the New York TImes.

A Commerce Department task force called for the creation of a ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’ for online consumers and the establishment of an office within the department that would work to strengthen privacy policies in the United States and coordinate initiatives with other countries.

The department’s Internet Policy Task Force, in a report released on Thursday, said the “Privacy Bill of Rights” would increase transparency on how user information was collected online, place limits on the use of consumer data by companies and promote the use of audits and other forms of enforcement to increase accountability.

The new protections would expand on the framework of Fair Information Practice Principles that address data security, notice and choice — or the privacy policies many users agree to on Web sites — and rights to obtaining information on the Internet.

The simple concept of notice and choice is not adequate as a basis for privacy protections,” said Daniel J. Weitzner, the associate administrator for the office of policy analysis and development at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration [emphasis mine - Kim].

The article makes the connection to the Federal Trade Commission's “Do Not Track” proposal:

The F.T.C., in its report on online privacy this month, also called for improvements to the practice principles, but focused on installing a “do not track” mechanism that would allow computer users to opt out of having their information collected surreptitiously by third-party companies.

That recommendation caused concern in the online advertising industry, which has said that such a mechanism would hamper the industry’s growth and could potentially limit users’ access to free content online.

[The prospect of an online advertising industry deprived of its ability to surreptitiously collect information on us causes tears to well in my eyes.  I can't continue!  I need a Kleenex!]

The proposed Privacy Policy Office would work with the administration, the F.T.C. and other agencies on issues surrounding international and commercial data privacy issues but would not have enforcement authority.

“America needs a robust privacy framework that preserves consumer trust in the evolving Internet economy while ensuring the Web remains a platform for innovation, jobs and economic growth,” the commerce secretary, Gary F. Locke, said in a statement. “Self-regulation without stronger enforcement is not enough. Consumers must trust the Internet in order for businesses to succeed online.”

All of this is, in my view, just an initial reaction to behaviors that are seriously out of control.  As information leakage goes, the surreptitious collection of information” to which the NYT refers is done at a scale that dwarfs Wiki Leaks, even if the subjects of the information are mere citizens rather than lofty officials of government.

I will personally be delighted when it is enshrined in law that a company can no longer get you to click on a privacy policy like this one and claim it is consent to sell your location to anyone it pleases.

Gov2.0 and Facebook ‘Like’ Buttons

I couldn't agree more with the points made by identity architect James Brown in a very disturbing piece he has posted at The Other James Brown

James explains how the omnipresent Facebook  widget works as a tracking mechanism:  if you are a Facebook subscriber, then whenever you open a page showing the widget, your visit is reported to Facebook.

You don't have to do anything whatsoever – or click the widget - to trigger this report.  It is automatic.  Nor are we talking here about anonymized information or simple IP address collection.  The report contains your Facebook identity information as well as the URL of the page you are looking at.

If you are familiar with the way advertising beacons operate, your first reaction might be to roll your eyes and yawn.  After all, tracking beacons are all over the place and we've known about them for years.

But until recently, government web sites – or private web sites treating sensitive information of any kind – wouldn't be caught dead using tracking beacons. 

What has changed?  Governments want to piggyback on the reach of social networks, and show they embrace technology evolution.  But do they have procedures in place that ensure that the mechanisms they adopt are actually safe?  Probably not, if the growing use of the Facebook ‘Like’ button on these sites demonstrates.  I doubt those who inserted the widgets have any idea about how the underlying technology works – or the time or background to evaluate it in depth.  The result is a really serious privacy violation.

Governments need to be cautious about embracing tracking technology that betrays the trust citizens put in them.  James gives us a good explanation of the problem with Facebook widgets.  But other equally disturbing threats exist.  For example, should governments be developing iPhone applications when to use them, citizens must agree that Apple has the right to reveal their phone's identifier and location to anyone for any purpose?    

In my view, data protection authorities are going to have to look hard at emerging technologies and develop guidelines on whether government departments can embrace technologies that endanger the privacy of citizens.

Let's turn now to the details of James’ explanation.  He writes:

I am all for Gov2.0.  I think that it can genuinely make a difference and help bring public sector organisations and people closer together and give them new ways of working.  However, with it comes responsibility, the public sector needs to understand what it is signing its users up for.image

In my post Insurers use social networking sites to identify risky clients last week I mentioned that NHS Choices was using a Facebook ‘Like’ button on its pages and this potentially allows Facebook to track what its users were doing on the site.  I have been reading a couple of posts on ‘Mischa’s ramblings on the interweb’ who unearthed this issue here and here and digging into this a bit further to see for myself, and to be honest I really did not realise how invasive these social widgets can be.

Many services that government and public sector organisations offer are sensitive and personal. When browsing through public sector web portals I do not expect that other organisations are going to be able to track my visit – especially organisations such as Facebook which I use to interact with friends, family and colleagues.

This issue has now been raised by Tom Watson MP, and the response from the Department of Health on this issue of Facebook is:

“Facebook capturing data from sites like NHS Choices is a result of Facebook’s own system. When users sign up to Facebook they agree Facebook can gather information on their web use. NHS Choices privacy policy, which is on the homepage of the site, makes this clear.”

“We advise that people log out of Facebook properly, not just close the window, to ensure no inadvertent data transfer.”

I think this response is wrong on a number of different levels.  Firstly at a personal level, when I browse the UK National Health Service web portal to read about health conditions I do not expect them to allow other companies to track that visit; I don't really care what anybody's privacy policy states, I don't expect the NHS to allow Facebook to track my browsing habits on the NHS web site.

Secondly, I would suggest that the statement “Facebook capturing data from sites like NHS Choices is a result of Facebook’s own system” is wrong.  Facebook being able to capture data from sites like NHS Choices is a result of NHS Choices adding Facebook's functionality to their site.

Finally, I don't believe that the “We advise that people log out of Facebook properly, not just close the window, to ensure no inadvertent data transfer.” is technically correct.

(Sorry to non-technical users but it is about to a bit techy…)

I created a clean Virtual Machine and installed HTTPWatch so I could see the traffic in my browser when I load an NHS Choices page.  This machine has never been to Facebook, and definitely never logged into it.  When I visit the NHS Choices page on bowel cancer the following call is made to Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/like.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nhs.uk%2fconditions%2fcancer-of-the-colon-rectum-or-bowel%2fpages%2fintroduction.aspx&layout=button_count&show_faces=true&width=450&action=like&colorscheme=light&height=21

 

AnonFacebook

So Facebook knows someone has gone to the above page, but does not know who.

 

Now go Facebook and log-in without ticking the ‘Keep logged in’ checkbox and the following cookie is deposited on my machine with the following 2 fields in it: (added xxxxxxxx to mask the my unique id)

  • datr: s07-TP6GxxxxxxxxkOOWvveg
  • lu: RgfhxpMiJ4xxxxxxxxWqW9lQ

If I now close my browser and go back to Facebook, it does not log me in – but it knows who I am as my email address is pre-filled.

 

Now head over back to http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cancer-of-the-colon-rectum-or-bowel/pages/introduction.aspx and when the Facebook page is contacted the cookie is sent to them with the data:

  • datr: s07-TP6GxxxxxxxxkOOWvveg
  • lu: RgfhxpMiJ4xxxxxxxxWqW9lQ

FacebookNotLoggedIn

 

So even if I am not logged into Facebook, and even if I do not click on the ‘Like’ button, the NHS Choices site is allowing Facebook to track me.

Sorry, I don't think that is acceptable.

[Update:  I originally misread James' posting as saying the "keep me logged in" checkbox on the Facebook login page was a factor in enabling tracking - in other words that Facebook only used permanent cookies after you ticked that box.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  I've updated my comments in light of this information.

If you have authenticated to Facebook even once, the tracking widget will continue to collect information about you as you surf the web unless you manually delete your Facebook cookies from the browser.  This design is about as invasive of your privacy as you can possibly get...]