Blog of Rights

Yahoo Pulse — The Plusses and Minuses for Privacy

By Nicole Ozer, Technology & Civil Liberties Policy Director, ACLU of Northern California at 5:05pm

Yahoo is making another attempt to move into the social networking space this week with the launch of “Pulse.”  It encourages users to share “Updates,” including comments on news items, pictures posted to Picasa, and other content shared on various Yahoo services with others — and makes it easy for anyone to track these updates. Here’s our quick take on Pulse’s plusses and minuses for privacy.

Plus

Yahoo seems to have learned many of the lessons offered by Google’s Buzz fiasco.

  1. Changes are relatively transparent and understandable.  Yahoo has made an effort to publicize these changes through blog posts, FAQs, and notices in mail accounts and elsewhere before releasing its new changes.
  2. Some Clear Controls.  Users can both control for the privacy of each specific update and set global controls to limit or opt out of updates, either entirely or for specific services.
  3. No new information is made public. Only content that was already publicly available in some fashion on Yahoo is rolled into Pulse.

Minus

However, there are some drawbacks to Pulse as well.

  1. Pulse is an opt-out service. The fact that this information was already visible somewhere on the Yahoo platform does not mean that there is no privacy issue here: just as there is a difference between having a friend spot you while walking down the street and having someone follow you everywhere you walk, there is a real privacy difference between having your Flickr pictures, news comments, and other content on Yahoo sites visible to anyone who happens across it and having all of that content collected in a single stream and automatically pushed out to anyone who happens to have your Yahoo email address in their contacts.
  2. You don’t have person-by-person control on who gets your updates.  Your updates will get posted automatically to anyone who has you in their Yahoo Mail address book, not just the people in your address book. Think of all the random people who have received a Yahoo email from you over the years and may have added you to their address book. Coworkers, people you met traveling, former boyfriends or girlfriends? Anyone who happens to already have your Yahoo email in their address book  or finds your email and adds it to their address book, will automatically get your updates unless you opt out (or if they choose to stop seeing your updates).
  3. Pulse is retroactive. Update streams, which are now visible to far more Yahoo users, include content that was created before these changes were rolled out and users did not contemplate this information being aggregated and automatically received by other Yahoo users.
  4. No prompt to change settings. Yahoo users who do not notice Yahoo's attempts to publicize these changes may transition to Pulse without realizing it.

Conclusions

Yahoo should use an opt-in model that would require users to affirmatively choose to make update streams available to other Yahoo users. The current opt out regime, accompanied by banner ads and other notification methods that users may not spot, means some users may end up sharing information without realizing it. In addition, Yahoo should include only new content in Pulse and should not pull old content into its new offering.

To Do

If you are a Yahoo user, we encourage you to check your own Profile to see your update stream and other information, and then check your Update Settings to make sure that you are only sharing what you want, with who you want.  (You can also choose how you share each update, in case you want some but not all of your pictures, comments, or other data visible to anyone who follows you.)

Get more tips on social networking privacy at www.dotrights.org/social-networking.

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