Privacy Calls

Last Monday New York Times tech columnist David Pogue wrote a post in his blog titled Free Overseas Phone Calls about Futurephone. To use Futurephone one dials an Iowa number, then 011, the country code, and the desired phone number, and then waits for the call to go through. Futurephone does not require users to sign up or collect any personal information. Pogue confirmed that Futurephone worked as promised. On Thursday he wrote a post titled Some Perspective on Privacy about the reaction of many of his readers:

“A bunch of you, however, had a reaction that surprised me: ‘I wonder how much data they’ll harvest? Not just phone numbers but also the content of the conversations.’”

“OK, What?”

Pogue is astonished that many of his readers believe Futurephone to be a “giant phone number collection scam,” or worse–a Trojan horse for eavesdropping. He asks why someone would start a telephone company for the purpose of harvesting phone numbers and rolls his eyes (figuratively, of course) at the concept of a private company listening to all of these conversations to learn–what, exactly?

Inconsistent attitudes about personal privacy are endemic to this discussion. We exaggerate far-fetched risks such as these and ignore the bits of ourselves we leave at every step. In my privacy law seminars, first we defined what we meant by “privacy.” For a word we use all of the time, it’s meaning is remarkably subjective. Then we examined the tension between our subjective concepts–“this is what I want to be private”–and the scope of the law’s patchwork protection of privacy. There were clear lines between privacy advocates and privacy realists.

Pogue is a privacy realist. He says

You’re already in a thousand databases. Your tracks are everywhere. MasterCard knows where you go and what you buy. Your grocery store knows what you eat and how often. You gave up your theoretical online privacy the day you signed up for an Internet account, let alone this newsletter . . . If you’re going to be paranoid, at least focus on the real threats; there are plenty of those to go around.

All of this leaves unanswered the question: what is Futurephone up to, anyway?

4 thoughts on “Privacy Calls”

  1. The claim about privacy invasion is, indeed, imaginative at best, and really shows just how easily people trust the “real world” vs the internet. Whenever something new appears online, users are immediately sceptical, thinking of data privacy and new scams for stealing their identities/financial information. Truth is, as stated in this blog post, that we give out far more information than we might even realize every single day: when we use our store cards (blockbuster, shaws – for you BU students, even when you pay Starbucks with your terrier card…).

    We will soon find out about futurephone.com, and what is truly their goal. The most realistic approach is that their goal is already reached – hundreds of people are talking, writing and thinking about this company – any news is good news, they say. In the future, after the company has proven itself and sees that there is enough interest, I expect that users will find a 30 second commercial before the call goes through (see also http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=2560255&page=1&technology=true ) or they start offering other services that are paid (Skype is a good example).

  2. Pogue seems to have figured out what FuturePhone actually is up to this week. Here’s his blog posting.

    If anybody’s interested in privacy, here’s some practical advice:

    Privacy Policies: You can usually find a Privacy Policy that’s used by most reputable websites collecting personal info. The link is usually on a page’s footer (the bottom of a website). If you can’t find a privacy policy, it’s probably not a good idea to reveal sensitive information. In fact, most credit card processors require eCommerce websites to put up Privacy Policies in the process of approving applications for merchant accounts. Here’s a link to my previous website’s privacy policy. In general, most sites follow the BBB’s guidelines in terms of outlining what type of information they collect, how they store & protect it, what they use the info. for, and who they share it with. If a privacy policy skips some of these elements, it shows that a site’s owners haven’t been thinking about security.

    Just Think About It: Normally, there’s a privacy problem issue when a website asks for too much information. For instance, if Futurephone wanted to know your name and address just to help you make a phone call, that should turn on a lightbulb – “so, why again, do they need my name and address?” But when Futurephone only ends up getting access to phone numbers that show up on its caller id (if it even stores this info.) then I normally wouldn’t be too worried. I mean, websites do need to be able to collect information in order to provide services, right? Just remember: if they’re asking for more info. than they seem to need, then the site’s owners probably want to use your information for something else.

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