Responding to Privacy Concerns Is the Tech PR Trend of the Week

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 28 2014 6:37 PM

Responding to Privacy Concerns Is the Tech PR Trend of the Week

In their attempts to prove that they care about customer privacy, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are getting a little unorthodox—and maybe desperate.

Lily Hay Newman Lily Hay Newman

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

Google's contribution is a cutesy animation (above) that uses Playmobil-like figures to outline the steps Google takes when it receives a government request for user data. The quick recap: a judge signs a warrant, a screener at Google triages it according to urgency, and a producer looks for problems in the warrant (because apparently these warrants are often riddled with mistakes or unnecessarily general requests for information). Then Google extracts the relevant data, delivers it with a certificate of authenticity, and potentially sends a custodian to testify in court.

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The video says, "In the course of a criminal investigation, sometimes the government requests information on Google users. Here's how we protect users' information from excessive requests while also following the law." Google has been under a lot of pressure about this issue lately and has also made a noticeable effort to show its displeasure with having to comply with these government requests, especially from the NSA. Meanwhile, the number of requests Google receives seems to be the same or slightly higher every time they release a transparency report, even as Yahoo reports that it’s had a sharp decline in requests. (However, neither Google nor Yahoo includes Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests in their transparency reports.)

Meanwhile, over at Microsoft, the general counsel and VP of legal and corporate affairs posted a blog post about the company’s privacy policies. It’s titled "We're Listening," which is pretty unfortunate word choice: The goal of the post is to emphasize that Microsoft respects user privacy, not to imply that the company is listening in on users' communications. The post was motivated by a situation earlier this week in which Microsoft apparently read emails in a blogger's Hotmail account without permission. The post says:

It’s always uncomfortable to listen to criticism. But if one can step back a bit, it’s often thought-provoking and even helpful. That was definitely the case for us over the past week. Although our terms of service, like those of others in our industry, allowed us to access lawfully the account in this case, the circumstances raised legitimate questions about the privacy interests of our customers.

Yes, it is uncomfortable to listen to criticism. That's true! Though Microsoft is careful to maintain the complete legality of its actions, the post does promise that "if we receive information indicating that someone is using our services to traffic in stolen intellectual or physical property from Microsoft, we will not inspect a customer’s private content ourselves." So basically, in this very specific situation, you're covered! Awesome.

Even Facebook jumped on the “we care about your concerns” band wagon this week with its Privacy Dinosaur. Similar to Google's video, the campaign uses comforting, but irrelevant imagery to try and convince us that privacy is alive and well, and not extinct ... like a dinosaur.

It remains to be seen whether these campaigns—and those that are presumably being cooked up in Silicon Valley right now—will help people trust big tech companies. But hey, if a dinosaur and toys tell you it’s OK, then it has to be, right?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

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