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Digital privacy coming of age.

By James Temple
  • Anger among users of the photo-sharing app Instagram forced the company to halt plans to use client identities and images without permission. Photo: Justin Sullivan, Staff / 2012 Getty Images

The past year saw setbacks and advances in efforts to update privacy rules for the digital age, but consumers, officials and the media have at least begun to set down some clear minimum standards.

Their collective rebukes repeatedly chastened those who crossed the invisible boundary of online privacy in 2012, sending a loud signal. It's a start.

"We had this decade or more of technology advances where privacy rights were still stuck in the Dark Ages," said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "But I think we're starting to see all the pieces come together and build up into what is actually going to translate into real change for consumers."

Some highlights:

In January, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that physically attaching a GPS device to a car constituted a search that required a warrant.

It was a narrowly constructed decision that left important questions unanswered - notably, whether police can track suspects without a warrant through other electronic means, such as cellphones. But legal experts say the ruling nonetheless established limits that will echo in other cases.

In February, it emerged that the Path social-network app was transferring users' address books from their phones to its servers without asking permission.

The revelation outraged users and observers. Path CEO Dave Morin's tone-deaf excuse that "this is currently the industry best practice" did little to mollify anyone, but it would soon emerge that a handful of other companies were doing the same thing.

The upside is that the ensuing controversy forced Apple to alter its practices.

Later that month, California Attorney General Kamala Harris struck an agreement with Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and others to bring the mobile app industry in line with existing California law.

Specifically, it requires online services that collect personal data to conspicuously post a privacy policy, a rule relatively few apps were following.

Toward the end of the year, Harris' office began sending letters to companies with apps that still weren't in compliance. In early December, it filed the first lawsuit in the matter, targeting Delta Air Lines after the carrier ignored the warning.

In August, the Federal Trade Commission levied a record $22.5 million fine against Google for circumventing the privacy protections built into Apple's Safari browser, saying the search giant had violated an earlier privacy settlement with the FTC.

The next day, the agency made final an agreement with Facebook that subjected the social network to 20 years of privacy audits after it made information public that users had set to private.

The FTC flexed its privacy power again in December, when it updated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The rule now specifically limits the collection of information about children under 13 over newer technology like mobile apps and social networks.

Also in December, photo-sharing service Instagram bungled a plan to update its terms of service.

Among other changes, the company asserted or at least clarified the right to use its members' identities and images in advertisements, without notification or compensation. Users balked, causing an uproar that quickly forced the company to backtrack.

It first suggested that users had simply misunderstood its intentions, but by the following day the company said it would revert to its original terms of service.



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