Companies Using Beacon Will Undoubtedly be Sued

Privacy policies. They are the walls of separation that protect users from the over-indulging nature of companies and provide strict legal protections for both the user and the company. Privacy policies are generally penned by lawyers who like writing obscure documents that do these things.

Facebook Beacon, as we talked about, is a major privacy violator. Facebook’s official policy on this states that:

When you send an action to Facebook, the user is immediately alerted of the story you wish to publish and will be alerted again when they sign into Facebook. The user can choose to opt out of the story in either instance, but the user doesn’t need to take any action for the story to be published on Facebook.

Putting aside the obvious problems surrounding Facebook’s opt-in/opt-out policy, the real problem lies in the fact that partner companies are sending data to Facebook without permission in the first place. Undoubtedly, it is a violation of their own privacy policies. This begs the question: will some big-shot lawyer come along and file a class action lawsuit on behalf of the 50M+ Facebook users who have fallen victim to this conspiratorial betrayal of their trust and privacy?

Let’s explore some privacy policies to see what these companies are allowed to do as it pertains to third parties and user data.

Hotwire has a policy that allows for third party release of info for specific purposes but stipulates that the firms cannot share the data with other organizations:

Hotwire will also share your information with business firms contracted to provide specific services to us, in a manner consistent with this Privacy Policy. For instance, if Hotwire were to hold a sweepstakes offer on our Site, we may choose to hire a Sweepstakes Administration firm to handle the legal requirements surrounding entrant and winner selection and validation. We also share complete booking data for registered coolExtras members with Affinion Group, a loyalty marketing firm that administers coolExtras rebates. In situations such as this where your data is shared with a third-party firm, these firms are contractually obligated to only use your personal data for the purpose for which the relationship exists. These firms do not have the right to share your data with other organizations or contact you outside the bounds of their contract with us.

GameFly expressly forbids itself from transferring personally identifying data to anyone except in the case of a merger or acquisition or in the case of subpoena or cooperating with law enforcement:

Disclosure and/or Transfer of Personal Information

We may disclose any and/or all personal information about you in the good faith belief that we are required to do so by law, including but not limited to requests pursuant to subpoena or court order, and/or disclosure to local, state, or federal law enforcement, or other government officials pursuant to investigations they are conducting. In addition, in the event of a merger, acquisition, reorganization, bankruptcy, or other similar event, GameFly’s customer information may be transferred to our successor or assign.

Aggregate Information

We may provide our prospective partners, advertisers, and other third parties with aggregate data about members and visitors to the GameFly Website. However, such data is anonymous, and we do not disclose personally identifying information about specific users.

eBay has not introduced Beacon yet, but appears to be angling to do so and also protect itself and its users, something I applaud. Furthermore, their privacy policy explicitly allows for such sharing of information.

Web beacons

A web beacon is an electronic image placed in the web page code that can serve many of the same purposes as cookies. Web beacons are used to track the traffic patterns of users from one page to another in order to maximize web traffic flow.

How eBay protects your privacy with third parties

eBay may work with other companies who place cookies or web beacons on our websites. These companies help operate our websites and provide you with additional products and services. They are subject to confidentiality agreements with eBay and other legal restrictions. eBay does not permit any of these companies to collect personal information using cookies or web beacons on our websites.

While eBay may be angling to protect itself, OVerstock.com has no excuse considering purchases are explicitly banned from being disclosed to third parties not involved in closing the transaction (e.g. credit card companies):

We may collect information actively generated by the purchase of a product or service, such as a payment method. We use this information to process your order and analyze and support your use of the Overstock.com web site. This information may be disclosed only to our staff and to third parties involved in the completion of your transaction, the delivery of your order or the analysis and support of your use of the Overstock.com web site.

Blockbuster is over the top with their privacy policy readily admitting to sharing personally identifiable information:

Blockbuster, its affiliates and franchisees (if permitted by Blockbuster) on occasion may disclose to their business partners certain data, such as names and addresses and the genre of products rented or purchased by Users or Members, so that the business partner may send their own direct marketing communications to Users and Members. Blockbuster will not provide User or Member e-mail addresses to business partners, unless the User or Member has provided express permission to Blockbuster. If you would prefer that Blockbuster not use disclose your personal information to its business partners for direct marketing purposes, subject to legal, or contractual restrictions and legal notice you may opt out of such uses and/or disclosures by (a) checking the appropriate “Opt Out” box in any applicable e-mail communication or e-newsletter, (b) sending an e-mail to blockbuster@custhelp.com (c) writing to us at 1201 Elm Street, ATTN: Online Customer Loyalty, Dallas, TX 75270 or (d) visiting your local BLOCKBUSTER store.

So the problem here is not only Facebook. Facebook pledges to protect these company’s users privacy. My question is… why is Facebook doing the job these companies should be doing in accordance with their own privacy policy. I will go out on a limb right now and say for the record that I will gladly sign on to any class-action lawsuit on behalf of Facebook’s 50M+ users who have had their privacy violated on account of this program. Companies like Coca-cola have wisely decided not to get involved. Others have foolishly determined that they will stay involved.

I guess we’ll let the dust settle on this.

The Only Answer to Facebook Beacon is a Deleted Account

Marc Orchant, the other day, announced he was deleting his Facebook profile. For him, it came down to a matter of usefulness. I am considering also deleting my Facebook profile for completely different reasons – Facebook Beacon.

In case you’ve been under a rock for the past few weeks, Beacon is the program that Facebook marketed as a B2C advertising platform. Companies utilizing Beacon would benefit by automatically getting postings in the profile of a user utilizing the company’s website in some way, whether for purchase or otherwise. It was marketed to businesses as completely “opt-in” but as turned out to be exactly opposite.

The privacy concerns that have been demonstrated by the Beacon program is well documented. One guy bought his girlfriend a an engagement ring on Overstock.com and she found out about it by reading his Facebook profile where Overstock had posted this fact on the guy’s profile without him knowing. Personally, I’ve been dismayed to find my Gamefly activity documented as well as a car rental I purchased through Hotwire for later in the month.

Lots of people have proposed methods of “blocking” Beacon, but the fact is that whenever you are logged in, Beacon companies can (and will) post data to Facebook. Even if you opt to never show these details on your profile, Facebook still collects the data and quite possibly shares that demographic data with interested companies. Dare Obasanjo has detailed how broke Beacon really is

Awhile ago, I wrote an article entitled “The Art of War: Facebook’s Strategy for Ultimate Victory“. In that article, I outlined how I thought Facebook had made all the right decisions and as a result would eclipse MySpace and other social networks as the premiere network around.

I am taking that article back. Facebook has not only violated all sense of trust on this matter, but faced with the problems, they’ve only made matters worse. (Sidenote: If you have a few hours, go through these court docs and tell me at the end if you trust Mark Zuckerberg or find him to be completely slippery. Also read this lengthy “pieced together account” of Facebook’s origins).

The real question here is there any real way to opt out? I don’t think there is.

  1. The Privacy tab in Facebook – good for taking companies that use Beacon and that you’ve already engaged with out of a newsfeed – but what about future companies that I do business with?
  2. Companies still sending data to Facebook regardless of if I’ve turned the privacy level way down. What is Facebook actually doing with this data? Telling me that it will be deleted is not a good enough answer for me. Beacon should be opt-in ONLY at the Facebook AND vendor levels.
  3. The firefox extension for blocking sites. This is a good idea in principle but I shouldn’t have to do anything to maintain my own privacy!

To me, the only option here is deleting your Facebook profile – something I am very close to doing.