Telecoms, cable companies and search engines are fairly routinely asked to divulge information about their users’ activities (and even location in the case of wireless carriers) by the government and law enforcement. Disclosure of this information and the fact that they charge for these “spying” services would potentially upset or outrage users and badly damage their images as consumer friendly businesses.
Right now, Yahoo is engaged in an effort to pull down what amounts to a surveillance menu and price list for law enforcement that has been posted online. Wired summarizes:
Yahoo isn’t happy that a detailed menu of the spying services it provides law enforcement agencies has leaked onto the web.
Shortly after Threat Level reported this week that Yahoo had blocked the FOIA release of its law enforcement and intelligence price list, someone provided a copy of the company’s spying guide to the whistleblower site Cryptome.
The 17-page guide describes Yahoo’s data retention policies and the surveillance capabilities it can provide law enforcement, with a pricing list for these services. Cryptome also published lawful data-interception guides for Cox Communications, SBC, Cingular, Nextel, GTE and other telecoms and service providers.
Yahoo is concerned about consumer “shock” at the disclosure of the substance of these policies, as well as potential backlash from privacy and other groups and corresponding damage to its reputation and brand. Yahoo is currently engaged in a very expensive multi-media branding campaign that could be compromised if this “spying” narrative gains traction in the mainstream press.
Yahoo isn’t alone in this. And while search engines, mobile carriers and ISPs present themselves as guardians of consumer privacy these surveillance policies exist in the background, undisclosed to consumers. It’s time for all the information to come out so that consumers can make better decisions about whom to trust.
Postscript: For some Google’s personalized search raises a number of related privacy issues and concerns. Simultaneously CEO Eric Schmidt acknowledged in the recent CNBC feature on Google (Inside the Mind of Google) that search history could be made available to law enforcement under the Patriot Act and related law.
And . . . the EFF picks up on (and slams) Schmidt’s remarks on privacy to CNBC.