With the recent release of Buzz, Google’s new social media and networking platform, Google has been forced to face down a storm of criticism over alleged privacy violations. The primary point of concern raised by critics was the application’s “auto-follow feature,” which automatically uploaded and shared email contact information that many users preferred to keep private. Google Buzz is just one example of privacy concerns presented by the rapid growth of “cloud computing services.” These services, such as web-based email and online social databases, store information in a central hub—or “cloud”—that is accessible by users with varying degrees of access to the information. As a result, by merely participating in these services, users often put their information at risk for privacy violations.
When users upload information to online cloud services, there is an expectation by consumers that they will be able to control the privacy of that information. However, problems with unclear default settings and insufficient security options often expose information that was meant to remain private. While Google, as one example, maintains that files and confidential information uploaded to its various platforms will be stored securely, consumer protection groups have called for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s security safeguards. One of the FTC’s principal areas of concern is privacy and identity protection, giving them the power to regulate any business that runs the risk of engaging in deceptive or unfair trade practices with confidential information. Therefore, when companies like Google promise security safeguards that prove to be ineffective, the FTC ultimately has the authority to shut those services down.
The publication of personal information by websites also exposes internet companies to potential lawsuits from private consumers. When a company discloses an individual’s private information to the public, that individual can bring a tort claim for invasion of privacy or publication of private facts. However, in most cases the information exposed must be of the kind that would be highly offensive or harmful to a reasonable person. Additionally, if the information is of legitimate concern to the public then the plaintiff will have difficulty recovering damages. Furthermore, a website often cannot be held liable for giving further publicity to what an individual has already made public. Social media sites use this safeguard to argue that a great deal of the information uploaded by consumers has already been exposed to some portion of the public. Thus, users should be extremely diligent in safeguarding and uploading their information to social media sites. Once the information reaches the public, the user’s ability to protect the privacy of that information is greatly diminished.
While Google has corrected the “auto-follow feature” and other aspects of Buzz that caused the consumer uproar, the ever-expanding popularity of social media and “cloud computing services” will likely continue to raise these privacy concerns in the future. It is important to keep in mind that users are not without available protections. If you have any questions or concerns over whether your privacy rights have been violated, please contact Saper Law at 312.527.4100.