5 Newsworthy Privacy Stories Today

When it comes to online privacy, you can never be too careful. Ah the caveat - in order to be careful, you must stay informed. In addition to my regular HuffPost musings, this marks the first of a series of weekly columns designed to quickly and dare I say entertainingly help us all be aware of a few most important privacy-related stories, good and/or bad. The nominees this week are some household name actors or actions taken on the world stage that deserve special recognition for what they are up to.

1. Google wireless = Google dangerous

On March 3rd, Google announced to the Mobile World Congress that it's going wireless. On the bright side, increased competition within the telecomm industry and a new model for wireless services could bring better pricing for consumers. We hope so anyway. On the other hand, such favorable pricing could come at a high cost, one that makes me question Google's real motive here.

Remember, this is the same Google that has turned data mining into an art form, been fined for numerous privacy violations, and accused by Europe of forming a data-collecting monopoly. Google can track you online, offline, at home and within your emails. They probably know more about your habits and lifestyle than you do. By entrenching itself within your network, Google goes much deeper than invading your browsers and sites. It mines the infrastructure itself, which could mean deeper data mining without any checks and balances.

2. Facebook in "Plain English"

When Belgium's privacy watchdog barks, does Facebook listen? We'll soon see. In the watchdog group's just-released report, the social media site is accused of breaking European data-protection laws with its updated "Plain English" privacy policy. The goal of that policy was to eliminate all the legalese mumbo-jumbo that people ignore. Unfortunately for us, by replacing details with vague statements, Facebook could better insulate itself against lawsuits.

The report claims Facebook violates European law in the way it gathers information about you, uses your information, and informs you about all of the above. Basically, Facebook is being held accountable for being Facebook. A ruling against the company however, would have huge ramifications here and abroad.

3. Obama's loveless privacy bill

On February 27th, the White House unveiled its comprehensive consumer online privacy bill. If the purpose of this first iteration was to open a public debate, then mission accomplished. Unfortunately, that debate has been overwhelmingly one-sided, with nearly everyone on both sides of the fence criticizing it, including privacy advocates who lobbied for such a bill.

In a letter to the President written by the Consumer Watchdog organization and signed by thirteen other privacy advocate groups including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Consumer Federation of America, and Common Sense Media, the group claims that the bill:

• Fails to adequately define what constitutes sensitive information
• Provides too many exceptions for companies
• Gives companies too much leeway to determine their own consumer protections
• Fails to guarantee consumers the ability to correct most sets of records held by data brokers
• Does nothing for privacy protections concerning information about children and teens
• Limits fines the FTC could impose on businesses
• Preempts strong state laws that enable citizens to defend their privacy rights in court
Imagine Facebook self-regulating its own consumer protections and keeping itself honest. On secondhand, don't.

4. AT&T privacy policy: the wrong price

How far does $29 a month get you these days? Date night at the movies (without concessions)? How about Dinner for three at Chipotle? Well if you're a Kansas City resident and AT&T wireless customer, that $29 will enable you to buy your Fourth Amendment rights, just barely, and only at AT&T. You see AT&T is testing if people will accept super-fast fiber-optic service and a $29 discount off of their monthly bill in exchange for giving AT&T the right to follow "the webpages you visit, the time you spend on each, the links or ads you see and follow, and the search terms you enter." In other words, your stalker wants to give you money to accept their stalking.

Last time I checked, we didn't have to pay for our constitutional rights. We also shouldn't be penalized for them. Privacy is a human right, not a commodity. You can't put a price on something priceless.

5. Health sites: a danger to your health

You may want to think twice about self-diagnosing yourself on the Internet. According to a study done at University of Pennsylvania, your privacy is at significant risk every time you visit a health-related web page. In an analysis of close to 100,000 medical web pages, the study concluded that 90 percent of website visits end up with your personal health information being leaked to third parties, including online advertisers and data brokers.

Outside of the creepy factor, there's a danger that your health issues could be publicly identified with your name or misidentified if you are looking up something for someone else. Secondly, you could be subject to "blind discrimination" in which advertisers show or hide offers based on the pages you search. You could even be labelled a commercial risk if you visit too many health sites, meaning you could be denied credits or have applications for health benefits turned down out of fear you're dangerously sick. The lesson here is "heal thyself" at your own risk.