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Blackberries That Tell Everyone You’re Looking At Porn Are Part Of A Much Bigger Problem

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"Blackberries That Tell Everyone You’re Looking At Porn Are Part Of A Much Bigger Problem"

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BlackBerry 10 users who like to enjoy adult entertainment on their devices may want to think twice about opting into the device’s music sharing feature. While at first glance the “Show What I’m Listening To” feature sounds like it would merely share your music listening habits with your BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) contacts, what it actually does is record all activity in the media player and tells your friends and colleagues about it, regardless of content type. So many users turned this feature on thinking they would broadcast fairly benign information about what kind of music they enjoy, and instead wound up revealing something they would have preferred to keep private:

“BBM records any usage of the phone’s media player and can push these visits and downloads to all messenger contacts, much like a status update. So your grandmother might be notified that you’ve been listening to the new Justin Timberlake album, or she might know that you have a fetish for, uh, granny porn.

BlackBerry users unwittingly sharing porn preferences is not just an unfortunate (if funny) accident, it’s an example of how a lack of transparency about what information we are sharing online creates a wide gap between the experiences users want and what the ones they get. Facebook’s controversial Beacon advertising system revealed user purchases to friends with only an opt out mechanism, in some cases ruining big events like engagements. One of Google’s early forays into social media, Google Buzz, created the wrong kind of buzz by auto-populating the network with users’ most used private gmail contacts without asking. In at least one case, this breach of privacy revealed a woman’s location, workplace and several interactions with a current boyfriend to her abusive ex-husband. Google Buzz’s privacy breaches eventually resulted in a Federal Trade Commission settlement.

These incidents are wildly out of line with Internet users’ preferences. As early as 2000, 86 percent of internet users favored “opt-in” privacy policies requiring sites to ask people for permission to use their personal information and 54 percent believed that tracking of users on websites was harmful because it invades their privacy. A more recent 2012 survey found that 73 percent of search engine users would not be okay with a search engine tracking their searches and using that information to personalize future search results because it feels like “an invasion of privacy,” but that is almost exactly how Google’s Personalized Search works when users are logged in.

It should be noted that users’ stated preferences do not always match their actions. While asking directly about user privacy preferences gets very straightforward answers, behavioral economists have shown that the way privacy disclosure is framed can leave consumers unaware of the trade-offs they are making, even though they place an inherent value on remaining in control of their personal data. Consumers believe they deserve privacy and control over their data, but the Internet is so riddled with seemingly unintrusive requests to give up personal information a small bit at a time, that users often wind up doling out little pieces of their privacy without fully understanding the implications. Entire industries have sprung up devoted to piecing together the zip code we gave to our supermarket, the things we searched for online, and even key words that appear in our emails, in order to build detailed profiles of who we are.

And while consumers feel strongly they should have the right to be left alone, current regulatory protections do not guarantee that. Online privacy protections are a “patchwork” in the United States with different protections for different sectors and are significantly less strict than in Europe. While the Obama administration suggested a new broader approach to privacy more than a year ago, a draft of legislation has yet to materialize.

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