TOC Privacy depends on Industry Your Turn

September 18, 2007

The less privacy the public gets, the more ink media grants privacy. Call me an old-fashioned codger, but if I write in virtual pixels I mostly read real ink. I like the feeling nobody watches me turn the pages of my newspaper and times how much I spend on each article or advertising.

Since the inspiration behind these fillips comes to me courtesy of the press, I am grateful when some happy coincidence makes my day. Without it I would indeed be hard-pressed to illustrate some of my ideas and people would think I made it all up.

Take Ron Dennis, McLaren's director. The Financial Times reports today (*) his team was fined $100M for spying on Ferrari. On what evidence? The mere fact that some Ferrari design documents were found in the safekeeping of McLaren's chief designer. All from a tip by a printer who was asked to photocopy the documents. "[McLaren] "categorically established" that no Ferrari information was used to develop its car". And yet the judge found against him. Pity Ron Dennis. He is only guilty of being in the wrong industry. Were he in the Internet search business rather than in Formula 1 auto racing, he would have simply copied Google's defense.

There you are. Mr Dennis. You could have proclaimed your commitment, for the benefit of mankind, to safeguard any confidential information brought to your benign attention. You could have explained that copying is the industry standard to diligently discharge your duty. You could have magnanimously agree to swear in the future not to keep Ferrari's data beyond 18 months.

Indeed according to Maija Palmer (**), "Google has tried to improve its image by agreeing to limit the time it keeps search data to 18 months". A way with words can win the world. Definitely the case with Google's business model. Can it be true with Google's decision to work with Privacy International, a privacy watchdog? Simon Davies, its director, muses "whether [Google's steps] have any meaning beyond that, no one can yet tell."

The same day Microsoft published a 500 words advertisement (***) highlighting the following statement. "Industry needs to provide consumers with simple, clear guidelines on its use of customer data". Glad to lend a hand. I propose "We use customer data solely to process the transaction which created this data. Upon its completion, we retain no customer data". I am a bit pessimistic about the industry embracing my suggestion.

Even if it did, the issue is that confidentiality would still rest on confidence. Can any corporation deserve such blind confidence?

A long time Boston resident, I think few of my neighbors would disagree that team sports promote fair competition, that talented sports coaches are the models we should emulate and that Bill Belichick is the best there is. Unfortunately Judy Battista (****) reports "the National Football League fined New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick $500,000 [...] for violating leagues rules". What did he do? Just videotape his opponents' signals. That's right, a mere digital record of public acts. As Belichick said, in Google fashion, "We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress". I am not a lawyer but I could drive a truck through that qualified opening statement. As William C. Rhoden (*****) quotes a former Patriot opponent, "Oh, they knew. [...] They knew a lot of our calls".

So will you, faithful reader, believe me when I say that individual private information is not offered a tenth as much consideration and protection as corporate confidential data. Yet aren't we, "the people", worthier than sports companies there to entertain us? Can't we ask for technologies that do not rely on the holiness of suppliers' employees to protect our privacy? They already exist (1).

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............ McLaren team docked points for F1 spying, by Agencies in Paris (Financial Times) - September 14, 2007
  • (**) .......... Google in call for privacy legislation, by Maija Palmer (Financial Times) - September 14, 2007
  • (***) ........ Online Privacy Principles, Microsoft advertisement (New-York Times) - September 14, 2007
  • (****) ...... Sideline Spying: N.F.L. Punishes Patriots' Taping, by Judy Battista (New-York Times) - September 14, 2007
  • (*****) ... Belichick's Championship Legacy Is Tarnished, by William C. Rhoden (New-York Times) - September 14, 2007
  • (1) ePrio's employees are not holier than Google's or Microsoft's. Rather ePrio uses an auditable mechanism at arm's length from all parties, itself included.
September 2007
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