Facebook and Google have come under renewed criticism over their privacy settings, with a new report accusing the tech giants of unethical behaviour, with Microsoft also criticised over Windows 10.
The accusations are made in a report from the Norwegian Consumer Council which is entitled Deceived by Design. In it, both Google and Facebook are accused of using ‘dark patterns’ to try and push users away from privacy-friendly options on both of their platforms.
The report is based on user tests which took place in Norway in April and May of this year when both companies were in the process of updating privacy settings ahead of the arrival of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Report savages online privacy practices
Its conclusions are pretty damning but will probably not come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has followed their recent track records on privacy.
The Norwegian Consumer Council essentially accuses Facebook of deception, saying that while it claims to offer users control over how their data is shared with third-party advertisers, the reality is this control is severely limited.
It also found Facebook resorting to threats to stop users from choosing the privacy-friendly option. For example, if users try to disable facial recognition, they are warned that Facebook won’t be able to help if a stranger steals your image and tries to impersonate you.
The findings are no better for Google. The company’s whose motto was, until recently, ‘Don’t be Evil’, has made a big deal of their privacy dashboard which they claim gives users complete control over their personal data.
But the report found this dashboard to be extremely difficult to navigate and states that it more closely resembles a maze than a tool for user control.
And there was more. The report also highlights various examples of privacy options being hidden away, users being given ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ options, default settings being privacy-intrusive with the process to change them being long and complicated, and some privacy settings being obscured from user view entirely.
There are also multiple claims that both platforms are actively pushing users towards privacy-intrusive settings by making threats, using misleading wording to influence decisions, not giving options to postpone decisions, and using pop-ups to force certain decisions without offering all the necessary information, or in some cases all the available options.
A hollow defence
Inevitably, both Facebook and Google have defended themselves against the claims in the report, but their responses were far from convincing and unnervingly similar.
Facebook issued a statement saying that in preparation for the implementation of the EU’s GDPR, they have “made our policies clearer, our privacy settings easier to find and introduced better tools for people to access, download, and delete their information.”
Google meanwhile said that in preparation for the GDPR they had “ taken steps to update our products, policies and processes to provide all our users with meaningful data transparency and straightforward controls across all our services.”
It is telling that neither Facebook, Google, nor Microsoft has denied using any of the specific techniques referred to in the book. Their responses essentially argue that they are in compliance with the letter of the new GDPR requirements.
But this is open for debate, with one EU privacy group, noyb.eu, already accusing both Google and Facebook of being in breach of the new regulations.
Whether this claim has merit or not, one thing that does seem apparent, and which all three tech giants have essentially admitted through their statements, is that they are not in compliance with the spirit of the law.
How to stay private online
While all the required privacy options may be available on Google, Facebook, and Microsoft Windows 10, they are not always easy to use, and all three companies seem to be going out of their way to try and stop you keeping your data private online.
For privacy-conscious users, it leaves them in a tricky position. Many Facebook users have been deleting their accounts of late, and that trend seems to be continuing.
There are other options that can be chosen ahead of Google, but their seeming ubiquitousness across the internet can seem hard to avoid at times. But for a privacy-friendly search engine, DuckDuckGo is a good choice.
And Apple offers a far more privacy-friendly operating system in Mac OS to Microsoft’s much-derided Windows 10.
And, of course, using a VPN such as ExpressVPN or IPVanish helps to ensure that everything you do online is encrypted and also hides your IP Address to help keep your online activity private.