'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

Summary: Companies often say they "will not" use information collected through software or services to identify users. But they do not say they "cannot".

TOPICS: Microsoft

The language that is chosen by software companies, online and offline alike often astounds me. You would be surprised how often technology companies actually make firm commitments to their customers.

"Microsoft will..." and "Google can..." all the way to, "Research in Motion cannot...", as the script often seems to be with the BlackBerry manufacturer.

One of the key talents a journalist will need is the ability to interpret language to provide a fresh perspective and a new understanding. In my own head, it is perpetual and all but impossible to turn off. Perhaps that's the journalist talking; perhaps it's the academic. Either of which, I am all but permanently looking for things that may or may not be there.

Let me pick one example I recently found -- not to pick out Microsoft per se, but considering how they repeatedly responded to the recent series on the Patriot Act, shows quite precisely how manipulative one particular company can be when it comes to the use of language.

Can you see it? "Information received will not be used to personally identify you." What concerns me is that the text does not read "cannot be used".

I find it is an interesting use of the world "will". It effectively means that a company has said they can do something, and they may well do it, either now or in the future. If you "will" do something, it sets an indefinite timeframe to complete it by. We "will" kick that nasty oxygen habit we all have one day, and no doubt many of us "will" get married. It doesn't identify when.

In the case of the SmartScreen filter, it suggests to me that Microsoft may be able to personally identify both you and your browsing habits. It probably doesn't, but it's the theoretical potential that rings alarm bells in my head.

Suffice to say, I keep the SmartScreen filter off. It's just one of many preventative measures to ensure that my privacy is as secure as it can be.

Then again, for many of us, we will not know our privacy is in jeopardy until it is too late.

Topic: Microsoft

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  • No surprise that it probably 'can' be used to identify you

    Even a simple IP address with timestamps (collected by every website) is probably enough to identify most users, if the telecoms firms co-operate. Even without co-operation from the telecoms firms, it's probably relatively easy to identify people from their web browsing behaviour. This is where trust in the state comes in: corporation X say they won't do Y, and if they do do Y, we (X's customers) expect the state to intervene to protect our rights (with fines, regulation, even imprisonment, etc.).<br><br>At the end of the day, you've no choice but to trust somebody -- either corporations to be intrinsically moral and/or the state to protect the rights of the citizens. Since elected governments control the state, I tend to view the latter as more plausible, especially where electoral systems make governments accountable, e.g. by not heavily penalising small parties.<br><br>I must add, however, that I trust firms I actually buy products from (Microsoft, Apple, etc.) much more than firms like Google, since Google's actual customers are advertisers, not end users. I'm sure a lot of the people who are most paranoid about Microsoft are the ones pirating their software.
    • RE: 'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

      Either that or people that have been burned by Microsoft in the past. Let?s face it, Microsoft (and many others) have done some less than ethical things. I will not single out just Microsoft on this one. But they have done quite a few unethical things in the past. I do not believe that any large corporation is above reproach, and it would only be wise to give them limited trust.
      • What are some examples?

        @ Rick_K

        Most of the ethics complaints the anti-Microsoft brigade trot out relate to unfair competition (especially in the 1990s, which was some time ago). That isn't really relevant in this context, since in addition to being subjective, unfair competition by Microsoft would harm Microsoft's competitors, not Microsoft's customers.
    • Never trust

      Actually, at the end of the day, it's best to trust nobody.
      Deal cautiously with them, keep your eyes on them, plan for the worst, hope for the best. Individuals have ethics and morality, but bureaucracies and corporations have no ethics or morality beyond how to make the most money with the least investment and the sooner you learn that, the less you'll be taken advantage of.
      • Firms and the state are different things

        @ Dr_Zinj

        Your post isn't really addressing the point. As I wrote in my original post, I don't consider the notion that firms are ethical a plausible one. I don't rely on trust with firms -- that's what contract law is for, and if firm X say they will not do Y, and they do do Y, then I expect the state to punish them. The point is that in order for that to work, I have to trust the state.

        In a democracy, the people elect the government, and the government manage the state. If you don't trust the state, whom do you turn to if, for example, somebody sells you a defective product and refuses to give you a refund? Will you contact your local Mafia boss to retaliate against the seller? I'll go to the relevant public institutions, which I trust to act in accordance with the law, and uphold my rights against the seller.

        It may surprise you, but the countries with the least corrupt governments/states also tend to have the highest levels of trust in the government. It isn't clear which is the cause and which is the effect, but the correlation is there, and I don't find it at all surprising from a psychological perspective that people may respond positively to being trusted. People who work in the public sector have ethics too, and may of them also understand the concept of duty.
  • If you're concerned about privacy, why are you using IE?

    Or Windows for that matter?
  • it is just legalese....

    From the warning it sounds like the smartscreen filter checks the url you are visiting and determines if it is safe. Assuming they log the ip and url to check whenever something gets sent to smartscreen** then if you go to http://facebook.com/ZackWhittaker, http://foursquare/zwhittaker, etc. it wouldn't be hard to identify you. Microsoft is telling you they will not use that information to identify you (e.g. cross reference the logged ip from smartscreen with skydrive logs to discover that ZackWittaker is 'funT1mEZboi3876@live.com' who posted some rather personal pics to his skydrive account). They need some information from you to provide you the service (which is an excellent malware preventer from what I hear). You need to weigh the benefits against the risks.

    Personally, I trust Microsoft with potentially identifying information way more than I do malware authors so it is a no brainer.

    ** I'm sure smartscreen is fairly smart and wouldn't need to phone home to check the url's I used as an example. I ASSUME there is a local cache that gets updated like virus definitions. But for less popular sites that might not be in the local cache it might need to phone home.
  • Iwill not use IE

    Ever and this is the best protection their is!!
  • Could they?

    The biggest concern is that we've no way of knowing if they 'c o u l d' identify us or not.

    I'm not amused when ANY program is intercepted by my firewall to access the Internet when my permission hasn't been explicitly asked by the program concerned. And the number of companies that have 'ET phone home' routines isn't resassuring especially seeing as Microsoft have used this tactic before without being polite enough to tell us in the first place!

    If you don't use IE, it is far more difficult for Microsoft to track your Internet movements! And only allow programs you TRUST to access the Internet, and even then only for as short as time as is needed!
  • RE: 'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

    You mean you turn off smartscreen filter?? I trust microsoft at least with this...
  • &acirc;??Will&acirc;?? vs. &acirc;??shall&acirc;??

    Wikipedia on these terms in tech specs:

    Technical specifications
    In many requirement specifications, particularly involving software, the words shall and will have special meanings. Most requirement specifications use the word shall to denote something that is required,[citation needed] while reserving the will for a statement of fact. However, some documents deviate from this convention and use the words shall, will, and should to denote the strength of the requirement. Some requirement specifications will define the terms at the beginning of the document.

    Sounds like we need some legal standards, a court case?

    Or just figure that anything you do that is facilitated by an electronic device is public knowledge, because it could be.

    Technology outpacing law.
  • RE: 'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

    Socialist/communist governments can't be trusted to protect anybody's rights. They are the biggest freedom hater murderers. You are going to have corruption wherever there are humans. You will never get rid of corruption but you can limit it. Governments are way more corrupt than Corporations. Corporations can't use the might of government to take away people's freedom and money under threat of force. Why do you think the constitution banned most forms of taxation. The framers of the constitution knew how evil government could become, if not held in check.
    • RE: 'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

      The Socialist government preys on the ignorant masses. Like promising them hand-outs, in exchange for votes. Then you have the entitlement group of ignorant people that vote for the Socialist leader. We saw that in the 2008 election. Now we are facing more debt than I could have ever imagined, run by some of the worst crooks ever to hold office. The United States is not a Muslim country (no matter what that fool Obama says), and the Welfare fools were taken in by his canned speeches.
    • Democracy

      @ katrillionaire@...

      The issue is democracy, not socialism. The Scandinavian countries are the most socialist democracies in the world, with Sweden and Denmark competing for the world's highest tax rates. They also tend to be ranked as the most democratic and least corrupt countries in the world. (They also, incidentally, tend to run large fiscal surpluses, in contrast to the less socialist UK, US, etc.)

      I'd trust any Scandinavian government much, much further than I'd ever trust any corporation. In central/western Europe, the governments tend to be somewhat less democratic, more corrupt and less socialist, but they're still amongst the best in the world outside Scandinavia. I'd still trust the modern German government, for example, further than I'd trust any corporation.
    • Obama doesn't come close to being socialist

      @ Rick_K

      If you want to see democratic socialism, look at the tax rates in Sweden or Denmark. Obama's tax policy looks far-right by Scandinavian standards (as does the US tendency to run deficits).

      Much of the redistribution under a modern welfare state is actually to the same people, across time. When you're a child, the state (i.e. the taxpayers) pays for things like your education, healthcare, daycare and so on. When you're a young adult, the state pays for university (and in some cases, e.g. Scandinavia, also living expenses for students -- and not only for a select group, but for all, whether their parents are rich, poor or in the middle).

      When you're in the middle of life you pay high taxes, to support the next wave of children and young adults, as well as to pay the pensions of those who were taxpayers when you were young, and paid for all of your education etc. When you're old, the children and young adults you subsidised with your taxes pay taxes to pay your state pension.

      The basic idea is that there are phases of life where most people aren't economically productive (youth and old age), and phases of life where they are (especially the middle). Children generally can't borrow against their future work income, and young adults are often afraid to because of uncertainty, so if their parents are poor, their prospects are greatly reduced. At the same time, people who make mistakes in life (e.g. try to start a business and fail, save too little, invest in the wrong things) might end up without any money in old age, but the state pension guarantees they'll still have an income.

      A central point of all the redistribution is to try to get closer to a situation where people can achieve what they're capable of, no matter what the financial situation of their parents, and where they can take chances in life (e.g. starting a business) without potentially ruining their own future and the future of their children. The welfare state is why social mobility is so high in places like Scandinavia, and also relatively high in Germany and most of northern/central Europe. In places like the US or some countries in southern Europe (e.g. Italy), it's much harder for someone who's born poor to escape poverty and move into the middle- or upper-income groups, because the welfare state is so much more limited.
      • RE: 'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

        <i>Much of the redistribution under a modern welfare state is actually to the same people, across time.</i>

        Which is exactly what is going on. The entitlement people (welfare recipients) are now getting Condos and Town-homes, rather than apartments. The project that is 5 mile from my house looks like a Condo community, complete with Lincoln Navigators, Town-cars and Hummers. It is nice to know that my tax dollars are paying for that. Redistribution of the wealth is nothing more than taking from those that work and giving it to the lazy. Considering that the majority of these Entitlement people are 5th or even 6th generation, says more than the State helping them in the right direction. Also of note: the largest percentage of drug busts are in the project.
      • You've misunderstood

        @ Rick_K

        What I mean by 'the same people' is that, in the Scandinavian welfare state especially, the people paying the taxes and receiving the benefits are to a large degree one and the same. The young and old get more benefits than they pay in tax (children with no income of course pay no tax and get a lot of benefits), and those in the middle pay more in tax than they get in benefits, but everyone gets a lot of benefits and pays a lot in tax.

        I'm not familiar with the details of the US welfare state, but I do know it's very small by Scandinavian standards, and also that it's mostly means tested instead of universal, which is important. Consider university education, for example. Under the (democratic socialist) Scandinavian model, the state pays for university education (including living expenses) for everyone -- rich, middle and poor. Under the US model, my guess would be that if there are subsidies for university education, they're limited to the poor, leaving the middle to struggle to both pay taxes for the poor, and university expenses for their own children.
  • RE: 'We will not use information to identify you'; But could they?

    Personaly, I disable SmartScreen Filtering because (a) it's not very accurate and (b) it duplicates functionality already built-in, and (c) it adds ANOTHER layer that slows down the system, and (d) I actually read ther pages displayed on my screen BEFORE I click all those hyperlinks. Surprisingly, it works well enough that I've only had one infection sin e I started cruising the 'net in the late 70's.