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FreePint BlogPrivacy - being European won't help

Saturday, 13th August 2011 Please login top-right to be able to star items

By Tim Buckley Owen


Brisk backtracking by LinkedIn may have helped it avert a potentially embarrassing privacy debacle recently. But it and other United States-based providers of cloud services may find it more difficult to avoid compromising the privacy of their European customers should the US authorities decide to get heavy with them.

It seems to have been a self-styled “connection agent” called Steve Woodruff who blew the whistle on the apparent new LinkedIn practice of having a default setting that would allow LinkedIn members’ names and photos to be used for third party advertising. In an indignant posting, he explained step-by-step how to get out of it, and later reported triumphantly that LinkedIn was reconsidering as a result.

In fact, LinkedIn’s Ryan Roslansky insisted that the relevant changes to its privacy policy had been announced both before and during the launch of these so-called social ads, and he added that LinkedIn was only using information about members that was already publicly available. Nevertheless he did announce that LinkedIn would be removing both names and pictures from its social ads.

LinkedIn has moved swiftly to avoid the sort of condemnation that was visited upon Facebook when it tried to change its privacy default settings (LiveWire coverage here). But, as United States companies, they may both have more difficulty protecting their members’ privacy should they come up against the might of the US Patriot Act.

It was the German economic publication Wirtschaftwoche that exposed the admission from Google that, if the US intelligence services came to call, it had no option but to supply the information they demanded. As an American company, storing that information on European servers was no defence.

But the admission is not new; a recent Microsoft white paper on its new Office 365 cloud-based service included a link to the company’s Trust Center, which explains how Microsoft handles its customer data. That too makes clear that there are circumstances in which Microsoft may just have to hand data over to the US authorities (see commendatory coverage of Microsoft’s admission on the ZDNet technology news website).

So does this raise questions over the United Kingdom’s 2011 census, data processing of which is contracted to the UK subsidiary of the American Lockheed Martin? Insistence from British MPs several years back led to assurances that Lockheed Martin would have no access to the actual census data (LiveWire coverage here) – so let’s hope it remains out of reach of the Patriot Act now.

Meanwhile though, LinkedIn has just announced record levels of members, visitors and page views, and huge revenue growth. The risk of its European members walking away, MySpace style, because of perceived American risks to their privacy, is remote – but not impossible.


About this item:

Tim is an information skills trainer and writer on the information industry with over 40 years' experience in the profession. His career has encompassed information management, writing, editing, training, government policy advice and corporate media & marketing.

Besides writing for FreePint, Tim runs courses for training providers and private clients on enquiry handling, abstracting & summarising, information packaging & presentation and information management. The sixth edition of his classic handbook Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time is published by Facet Publishing. You can find details of Tim's training services at

Tim can also be reached at

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