Lawsuits Highlight Growing Tech/Privacy Concerns

By February 18, 2010

Privacy breaches are always in the news (generally coinciding with the latest Google app or Facebook update), but what’s a little different this week is that the privacy breaches are being very publicly challenged by lawsuits. In a suit filed in Pennsylvania, Harrington High School is charged with monitoring students at home via school-issued laptops. The suit alleges that the Rosemont, PA, high school watched a student’s at-home activities with a school-issued laptop’s webcam, as it believed that the student "was engaged in improper behavior in his home," according to The school did not disclose to the students that the laptops they issued were equipped with remote-control webcams that could be activated at any time. The suit claims that the school violated federal and state wiretapping laws, violated students’ civil rights, and that the school's acts were an invasion of privacy that could have led to the creation and dissemination of child pornography. And that wasn't today's only lawsuit.

Google’s Buzz PR fiasco got even worse today, as Eva Hibnick of Florida filed a class-action suit against the Mountain View company for automatically making personal information available to pre-generated followers and followers of followers. The suit was filed in San Jose, CA.

The lawsuit comes just a few days after the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that G-mail's social layer violates federal consumer protection law.

Google made the same mistake with Buzz that Facebook did with Beacon – not making it an opt-in service. Perhaps the amount of high-profile troubles left in Buzz’s wake shows that the honeymoon period of sharing is over and that consumers are starting to realize how fragile our privacy is when left in corporate hands.

Both cases are fundamentally the same. Different are the actors (a high school vs. one of the most powerful corporations in the world) as well as the mode of dissemination (violating privacy by inserting a physical object into someone’s home vs. doing so by inserting a piece of code into a piece of code). But both acts are essentially the same – we’ve just become desensitized to privacy breaches on the Web (though Mark Zuckerberg might argue that we’re too sensitive about privacy in the physical world).

Hopefully these suits, and whatever amount of press they generate, will further the attention paid to the erosion of privacy.

Or maybe not. Yesterday,, a site that satirizes location-based sites like FourSquare by focusing attention to how such sites can be a boon to burglars, made the news. It was amazing the amount of commenters on sites like Techcrunch who seemed to find the idea that bad people might use social networking updates to victimize people in the physical world pretty absurd.

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