Congress Gives Commercial Drones Takeoff Clearance for 2015


The U.S. Senate today approved the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Besides obviously making sure that the FAA has the necessary money to operate, the bill also includes a provision that requires the FAA to open U.S. airspace to unmanned commercial drone flights by September 2015 and to offer a plan for how to integrate drone flights with the current commercial and general aviation system within the next 18 months.

Currently, the use of drones outside of the military is mostly restricted to hobbyists. Getting permission to fly a commercial drone mission is virtually impossible.

The bill also requires the FAA to establish six test zones for a pilot project to test how to integrate drones "into the national airspace system." It's worth noting that the FAA is already working on new regulations that would loosen the rules that currently govern the use of drones.

Drones Over Your City

Us military drone

Currently, drone flights are mostly restricted to military airspace and areas away from urban centers and at relatively low altitudes. The U.S. government also uses these unmanned planes to patrol its borders.

Once commercial drone activities are possible, companies like Google or Microsoft could buy their own drones and use them to collect images for their mapping products, for example (and update those images far more often than they currently can).

Safety and Privacy Concerns

There are obviously safety concerns when it comes to letting drones fly in the same airspace as commercial and private planes. Drones, at least in their current form, tend to crash more often than other planes, for example.

In addition, the ACLU is also worried about the privacy implications of potentially having an army of flying robots perform commercial aerial surveillance "without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected."

Image credit: U.S. Air Force



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1:01 pm

Google Fights Back Against Microsoft’s “Putting People First” Ad Campaign


Earlier this morning, Microsoft announced a new campaign that would highlight how Microsoft was a better option for disgruntled Google users looking for a place that would provide them with better privacy controls. Now, Google is fighting back. On its Public Policy Blog, the company just posted a number of attempts to rebut Microsoft's arguments against Google's approach to privacy. While Google says that it has "always believed the facts should inform our marketing—and that it’s best to focus on our users rather than negative attacks on other companies," it's clear that Microsoft's campaign rattled some nerves in Mountain View.

Here are a few examples from Google's list: [list]

  • Myth: Google’s Privacy Policy changes make it harder for users to control their personal information. [Microsoft]
  • Fact: Our privacy controls have not changed. Period. Our users can: edit and delete their search history; edit and delete their YouTube viewing history; use many of our services signed in or out; use Google Dashboard and our Ads Preferences Manager to see what data we collect and manage the way it is used; and take advantage of our data liberation efforts if they want to remove information from our services. [/list] [list]
  • Myth: Google reads your email. [Microsoft]
  • Fact: No one reads your email but you. Like most major email providers, our computers scan messages to get rid of spam and malware, as well as show ads that are relevant to you.[/list]

Google also takes on other topics like Microsoft's assertion last year that its apps weren't certified for government use.

The last item on its list, though, is probably the most interesting one:

"We don’t make judgments about other people’s policies or controls. But our industry-leading Privacy Dashboard, Ads Preferences Manager and data liberation efforts enable you to understand and control the information we collect and how we use it—and we’ve simplified our privacy policy to make it easier to understand. Microsoft has no data liberation effort or Dashboard-like hub for users. Their privacy policy states that “information collected through one Microsoft service may be combined with information obtained through other Microsoft services.”

In many ways, Google has a point here, as the company has indeed worked hard to provide its users with privacy controls and the ability to use tools like Takeout to "liberate" their data.

What's most interesting about this fight to me, though, isn't so much the back and forth between the two companies, but the fact that Microsoft is suddenly in a position where it feels like it has the upper hand and can criticize Google without having to fear a major backlash. Google's recent policy changes were not very popular with pundits and users alike, so Microsoft clearly thought it could attack Google directly with these ads.

It'll be interesting to see how Microsoft will react to this now.


      11:29 am

      MelonCard Helps You Reclaim Your Online Privacy


      Guarding your privacy online is becoming increasingly hard, even for those of us who really want to keep our private information to ourselves. All across the net, information brokers have set up shop and will happily sell whatever private information they were able to gather about you to the highest bidder. This includes both marketing companies, as well as services like Radaris that sell “background reports” to consumers. MelonCard, which officially became a member of startup incubator 500 Startups latest class today, wants to help you regain control over your private information. The service check which brokers have compiled a profile of you and your online activities and then allows you to purge your records with just a few clicks.

      (Note: the site is going through some growing pains today, so it may be a bit slow or unavailable at times. Just keep trying or check back tomorrow if things don’t work today. It’s worth the wait.)


      MelonCard’s Founders: Privacy Sucks

      As the service’s founders Robert Leshner  and Geoff Hayes note, “Privacy sucks.  And by sucks, we mean, the state of privacy sucks, because there’s hardly any of it.  Our personal information has made its way online, and it’s being distributed everywhere.  Our cell-phone numbers, political views, criminal records, shopping transactions, favorite color, you name it, its online.”

      Who Knows What About You?

      Once you sign up for MelonCard, the service will ping the various online information brokers in its database (including RapLeaf, Acxiom, and Radaris) and give you an idea of the kind of information they have collected about you.

      Once you decide you want to delete your information from one of these services, you just click the “remove” button, solve a CAPTCHA and you’re almost done. Depending on the information broker, you may have to confirm your request by email. So it’s not all automatic, but if you value your online privacy, it’s well worth the effort.

      In total, MelonCard currently supports removal of your data from 16 providers (and they each may have multiple records for you, too), but only half of these are available with the service’s free plan. To purge your data from sites like PrivateEye, USA People Search or WhitePages, you have to subscribe to the company’s $7/month premium plan.

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      8:06 pm

      Khula Project Wants to Make Privacy Policies Readable


      Privacy policies and terms of service policies are generally so long and full of legal jargon that few users ever bother to read them. There are, of course, some notable exception to this and even Facebook, which regularly finds itself in the privacy spotlight, is making stride to improve how it communicates its policies. The average privacy policy is a mess, though. The Khula Project wants to create tools that will allow companies to write easy-to-read privacy policies, similar to what Creative Commons has done for copyright licenses.

      This project – which is currently looking for funding through Kickstarter – argues that simplified privacy policies will allow cloud services to build user trust. This is definitely an ambitious project. Given their importance as legal documents, there are reasons why they are so complex and why a search for “readable privacy policies” returns more results for machine-readable than human-readable ones.

      At first, Khula will work with the individual companies and will create tailor-made licenses for them at first. In the long run, though, the idea is to develop a “human-readable privacy policy creator.” This tool will then allow companies to customize their policies themselves.

      Privacy Should Not Be a Complicated Issue

      As the project’s founder Tyler Baird told me by email earlier this week, “Privacy should not be a complicated issue.” Right now, understanding a company’s privacy policies, however, is too complicated for most users. Hopefully this project – and others like it – will help propel the movement toward human-readable privacy policies forward.

      4:34 pm

      Germany vs. Facebook: Like Button Declared Illegal, Sites Threatened With Fine


      Updated: German websites based in the state of Schleswig-Holstein have until the end of September to remove Facebook‘s ‘like’ button or face a fine of up to 50,000 Euro.

      Germany has a long tradition of using laws to protect its citizen’s privacy. Home owners, for example, can ask Google to pixelate their houses in Street View (maybe so that their garden gnomes can stay incognito?). Facebook’s facial recognition feature has also come under fire in recent weeks. The latest target of Germany’s privacy advocates is Facebook’s ‘like’ button („Gefällt mir,“ in German). Thilo Weichert, the head of the Independent Centre for Privacy Protection of the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, argues that Internet sites based in his state that use the ‘like’ button are illegally sending this data to Facebook, which in turn uses it to illegally create a profile of its users web habits.

      Note: the original article didn’t sufficiently stress the fact that Weichert’s jurisdiction is limited to Schleswig-Holstein only. I’ve updated the story to reflect this more clearly.

      Thilo Weichert (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

      Weichert argues that data from any user who clicks the ‘like’ button – including those who are not Facebook users (which seems to be the crux of the problem for Weichert) – is immediately transmitted to a server in the United States. Weichert told German newspaper FAZ that his concern is that “Facebook can track every click on a site, how long I’m there, what I’m interested in.”

      According to the Independent Centre for Privacy Protection’s press release, Facebook uses this data to create “a broad individual and for members even a personalised profile. Such a profiling infringes German and European data protection law. There is no sufficient information of users and there is no choice; the wording in the conditions of use and privacy statements of Facebook does not nearly meet the legal requirements relevant for compliance of legal notice, privacy consent and general terms of use.”

      According to the Associated Press, Weichert is also telling users to “‘keep their fingers from clicking on social plug-ins’ and ‘not set up a Facebook account’ to avoid being profiled.”

      Facebook, of course, rejects Weichert’s claims and argues that its operating well within Germany’s and Europe’s data and privacy protection laws. Its users, Facebook says, stay in “full control of their data.”

      50,000 Euro Fine

      Indeed, Weichert isn’t actually ready to sue Facebook itself because it is outside of his jurisdiction. His agency, however, is threatening to sue site owners who continue to implement the ‘like’ button on their sites with a fine of up to 50,000 Euro. Site owners have until the end of September to remove the ‘like’ button from their sites.

      4:27 pm

      Afraid the Government is Spying on You Online? You're Not Alone [Infographic]


      Today is Data Privacy Day and the good folks at Opera used this as a chance to commission a survey of 1,000 web users each in the U.S., Japan and Russia and ask them about how worried they are about online privacy.

      In the U.S. – far more so than in Russia and Japan – Internet users tend to think that the government has too much insight into their online behavior (35%). Surprisingly, only 9% are worried about what search engines know about them (guess most people never check their Web History page on Google) and 5% think shopping sites are the worst offenders here. When it comes to social networking sites, 15% of U.S. Internet users and a whopping 38% of Russians think these sites know too much about them.

      In the U.S., the majority of users (54%) also feel that they themselves are responsible for their online safety and privacy. About a quarter of U.S. Internet users thinks the ISPs and other companies operating on the web should ensure their privacy and 10% think the government should be in charge.

      To protect themselves, most use antivirus software (80%) and safe passwords. Interestingly, 47% say that they regularly delete their surfing history to ensure their online privacy, which generally doesn’t do much good when it comes to being tracked online.

      Around 15% of U.S. Internet users also claims to just use sites and software that does not collect information. We can only assume that these users just use DuckDuckGo as their search engine and have never encountered a cookie online…

      11:26 am