Monday, November 12, 2007

Is Privacy Still Privacy?

Donald Kerr, the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence, is being reported as calling into question the tradition definition of information privacy. In this age of terrorism, Kerr said that individual privacy can no longer can mean anonymity, but should instead mean that government and businesses will properly safeguard people's private communications and financial information.

This redefinition, if one can call it that, has been a long time in the making. Both businesses and governments often seen no difference between privacy their holding close their customer's or citizen's personal information. Of course, the corporate circle has a tendency to expand, to include affiliates, third party affiliates, third parties who are also customers, third parties who really, really need the information, to third parties who promise to keep the information private. Until, of course, someone else needs it.

In the case of HIPAA, sharing medical information with other doctors, within a hospital, with laboratories and even family members and friends makes sense. Sharing financial information, or buying habits with advertisers, less so.

In the business world, it is easy to convince one's self that sharing information is always in the customer's interest, (as is easy access one's credit report). The government, too, no doubt, views itself as having only benign motives. This is the dilemma of privacy. Possession, and even use of, information can often be nearly harmless.

But it is surely a stretch to redefine privacy as every organization merely safeguarding personal information from every other organization, or at least make them promise to safeguard it - until they need to share it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Congressmen Blasts Yahoo Executives in Chinese Dissident Case

Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and Yahoo's General Counsel, Michael Callahan, were harshly criticized today by Congressmen who accused Yahoo of deceiving Congress and of complicity with efforts by the government of China to suppress human rights.

Yahoo initially received an official demand (citing "illegal provision of state secrets") for information they had about a pro-democracy dissident named Shi Tao over to the Chinese government. Yahoo turned the information over to the government. Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Callahan defended Yahoo’s actions. "I cannot ask our local employees to resist lawful demands and put their own freedom at risk, even if, in my personal view, the local laws are overbroad," he said.

Congressman Tom Lantos said, "I do not believe that America's best and brightest companies should be playing integral roles in China's notorious and brutal political repression apparatus," he said.

He also said, "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”

Rep. Chris Smith compared Yahoo's cooperation with the Chinese government to cooperating with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Members also criticized Callahan for not informing Congress of the demand when if occurred. Callahan has issued a statement saying that he learned about it after he testified in February 2006 testimony, and that he regretted not alerting the committee to it once he knew about it.

It is unclear what Yahoo’s policy is now with regard to turning customer information over to host governments.