• 2010-03-31 09:19:00

    Online Privacy, Spam, Buzz, Banks and Mail

    Electronic Presence

    Everyone more or less has some sort of electronic presence. That presence can easily be seen on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, personal blog etc.

    What most people neglect to realize that this is only the tip of the iceberg. How about the information your bank stores about you? Isn't that an electronic/online presence? Some server contains vital information about you and your bank uses that information to identify you against someone else. If your bank provides online banking, then the Internet becomes the interface that you use to access your own personal information (mainly funds) which again is stored somewhere else.

    The same happens when you purchase something online. Say you want to purchase flowers for your loved one. You will be probably asked to create an account with the florists's website and you will need to provide payment for the flowers. The authenticator, in this case, is some company that will check your credit card against an online record (again stored somewhere) in order to authorize the payment.

    Google Buzz

    With this in mind, I have been wondering lately why all of a sudden everyone seems to be trying to stab Google, due to some mishaps with Buzz? Were the controls that Buzz had initially set correctly? You might say no here and I would have to respectfully disagree. The point is that there was the option for people to opt out, the terms of service were there for everyone to read (I am wondering who did if any) so why was something set incorrectly? Why complain if the information was available for everyone to make an intelligent and educated choice as to use the new tool or not? If you did not investigate and read all there is to it regarding Buzz then you are responsible for anything that comes with it.

    I hear already people screaming at me that this was supposed to be an opt-in not an opt-out service. I agree and disagree there. Allow me to elaborate.

    For starters Google offers Buzz (and GMail) for free. How come all of a sudden this free product (which mind you is of extremely high quality) became everyone's right and stopped being a privilege? Yeah sure, Google runs ads and displays them on the right side of your GMail. That is how they offset their costs. Is anything wrong with that? I don't think so. Yet you have people that try to download special extensions to block ads, they change their signature to contain certain keywords that Google has deemed inappropriate - in short endangering everyone's use of GMail because if it turns out to be totally not profitable for Google they will simply close down the service or start charging for it. If that happens the first people that will complain are going to be the ones that caused this i.e. the ones that were blocking ads.

    Everyone complained about Buzz. It was not secure enough, it exposed personal information etc. If you looked closely, the choice to opt out was available. People will argue that it was not the default value but that is not the point. The option was available (and still is) and people should start reading what they sign up to. Terms and conditions exist for a reason and people should start reading that stuff and exploring the options/settings prior to signing up to something!

    My Financial Institution

    A few days ago I got a letter from Flagstar Bank, which is (was) my mortgage bank. It appears that they sold my mortgage to EverHome (just another mortgage company). This is a really common practice over the course of a mortgage. Thus far (6 months into my mortgage), I have changed 3 companies. I would be interested to see what will happen in the course of 30 years :).

    After receiving this notice from Flagstar Bank, I got a new letter from EverHome with some interesting information. The most interesting part of this documentation was the Privacy policy of EverHome. Here is what is in store for me (emphasis mine):

    Do we disclose your information to non-affiliated third parties?

    We may disclose all of the information about you, as described above, to certain people, subject to legal restrictions, and subject to your right to ask us not to share your information. Your right to ask us not to disclose your information is referred to as your "Opt-Out Rights" and is more fully described below.

    To what non-affiliated parties do we disclose your information?

    Subject to your Opt-Out Rights described below, we may disclose your nonpublic personal information to the following types of third parties:

    • Financial service providers, such as banks, mortgage companies, mortgage brokers, consumer credit companies, investment advisors and similar companies;
    • Insurance providers, such as life insurance companies, credit insurance companies, hazard insurance companies, automobile insurance companies; and<
    • Other optional service providers and organizations.

    Even if you opt-out of information sharing, we will still share information about you with certain third parties as permitted by law or regulation. This may include but not limited to, disclosing information:

    • To parties assisting in servicing or processing of your loan;
    • To our lawyers, accountants, auditors, regulators and advisors;
    • To protect our rights relating to, and the security of, your loan, our website, or our telephone customer service center;
    • To verify the existence or status of your loan for a third party;
    • To companies that perform marketing services on our behalf, or jointly with us;
    • To other financial institutions with whom we have joint marketing agreements; and
    • When you ask or give us permission to do so.

    Do we share your information with our affiliates?

    We are affiliated with several types of companies including but not limited to other financial service , such as banks, mortgage companies, and title insurance agents. Even if you exercise your Opt-Out Rights, we may share with our affiliates information about our direct transactions and experiences with you.

    Subject to your Opt-Out Rights, we may share information about you obtained from third parties with our affiliates, including:

    • Information from your application, such as your age, gender, marital status, number of dependents, assets, debts, income, employment information, address and the address of the property securing your loan;
    • Information from a consumer report, including information about your credit worthiness, financial circumstances, and credit history, including any bankruptcies or foreclosures;
    • Information to verify representations made by you, such as verification of your income, employment, and open lines of credit with others; and
    • Information from a person about his or her employment, credit, or other relationship with you, such as your employment history with your employer, or credit history with another financial institution.

    How can you Opt-Out?

    If you do not want us to disclose nonpublic personal information about you to non affiliated third parties, or if you want to limit the nonpublic personal information we may disclose to our affiliates, you may Opt-Out Please remember that even if you choose to opt-out, we will still disclose information about you as permitted by law or regulation.

    From what I have heard from friends, this is pretty much standard text for almost every mortgage company. Let's have a look a bit on a couple of interesting points and how that relates to Google and Buzz.

    • This is not the initial mortgage company. I did not allow them to do anything with my personal information. My initial mortgage company had a clause that basically said "we are allowed to sell your mortgage and with it your information". So I am stuck. This new company has my personal information (vital information such as my SSN, information about my previous employment, account balances and possibly account numbers, name, credit cards, in short everything). Did my old mortgage company delete my records from their systems? Most probably no. So here I am having 2 records out there without having to lift a finger. Did the introduction of Buzz create a brand new record of all of your personal information and disclosed it/forwarded it to a brand new company?
    • This is an Opt-Out policy. Wait a minute!!! Why don't I see a revolution, people running on the streets of major cities with signs, crying and condemning EverHome for such sacrilege, sending thousands of tweets, blogging about it... condemning the company and associating them with the devil? EverHome has hundreds of thousands of customers. I never heard any complain about this! How many of those customers have GMail accounts? Chances are quite a few. How many complained about Buzz? Probably a significant number. Did they also complain to EverHome? Did they blog about it or tweet about it?
    • If you carefully read the above, you will see that my whole life, all the vital information about me, can be transmitted to various other companies so long as they are affiliated to EverHome. Do I have a saying in this? Not really. The last paragraph clearly states that even if I Opt-Out, they will release my information under certain circumstances "Please remember that even if you choose to opt-out, we will still disclose information about you as permiited by law or regulation."

    Who else does Opt-Out?

    This post is not to bad mouth or disgrace EverHome. Far from it. This post is to condemn hypocrisy. I have read many blogs from people condemning Google for their Opt-Out policy in Buzz - whereas it should have been Opt-In. Yeah fine, I agree to that. But then again, less than a month later Google changed their policy to an Opt-In, introduced more alerts, controls and visual effects to ensure that the user wants to Opt-In. That is Google.

    Where are the blog posts complaining about the Opt-Out policies that other companies that we use their services on a daily basis? Did anyone bother to read the terms and conditions of say Verizon, AT&T for your cellphone, Satellite service (Dish/DirecTV) etc.? I dare you to check your paperwork; you will be shocked to find that almost everyone uses the Opt-Out approach and not the Opt-In.

    Regular Mail

    Consider also your regular mail. Whatever the postman brings. How much junk do you really get in your mailbox, just because you got a store card, ordered once from a website and now you cannot get them to stop? My wife got a gift certificate once for a motorbike accessory store for our cousin and since then we receive this really nice magazine concerning motorbikes. We returned it rejected more than 5 times but they do not get the hint. Did we ask for it? No. Do they have the right to do that? No, but they do not care. Did anyone complain about all this? Not as much as they complained about Buzz....

    Conclusion

    Google is not the devil. I do believe that they adhere by the "Don't be evil" motto. I use their products and I am happy that I do because the quality of products offered help me do my job better. Do I read all the disclaimers and terms and conditions? Yes I do and if there is something I do not like I do not use it. If I click 'I accept the Terms' then I have no right to complain for something that was there and I did not read it or pay attention to it. If you don't like them, don't like their policies, do not use their products. Export your data from GMail (since Google adheres to the Data Liberation principles) to your computer or a different provider, delete your Google Account and stop complaining. There is a difference between making suggestions towards making a product better and bitching about something that is mostly your fault (i.e. reading Terms and Conditions and checking settings).

    I always remind myself that the free Google services are a privilege to me and not my right. Shouldn't you do the same if using those same free products?

    Rant on!