Yeesh, Silicon Valley, another fine mess you've gotten us into

Apple's decision to police apps' use of contact data is just the latest case in which tech execs have pushed the envelope...right into a looming backlash.

The uproar over apps that suck up people's address books without warning is hardly surprising--except perhaps to some of the software engineers working on such products.

Apple today finally said it would clamp down by enforcing personal-data guidelines already in place. Which, in turn, just illustrates the ongoing disconnect between tech companies and their customers when it comes to privacy concerns.

The engineers coming up with way to use your data or gather your location often do so with the belief that they're doing something helpful. As the founder of Kik, an instant messaging app that used to absorb address books as a way to get users, told my colleague Rafe Needleman , "We thought it was a cool feature of the app."

Or as Kevin Laws, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur and angel investor, told me: "The engineers aren't evil. They're thinking, Of course I'm not going to look at the data or use it for anything bad. They're just focused on building cool products."

While there are of course times when companies are trying to hide something they know would piss people off, these blowups often arise because software engineers don't see problems others would. Sure, it often works fine. But some are blind to concerns that would seem so obvious to so many others.

A few choice examples:

Location, location, location
Apple found itself the target of outrage almost a year ago when it was discovered that it had been recording the geographical locations of iPhone and iPad customers for a year. Apple had a good reason to do this: It wanted to better pinpoint your location, which is crucial for all sorts of apps that its customers love.

It handled the whole thing badly, however. For one thing, it was sloppy. The data it stored was unencrypted, and researchers took it and suggested that it could be used to track where users were going and where they lived. The company took a week before it explained what was it doing--an endless stretch in crisis PR terms--and a few weeks later it released a software update that limited such data retention to seven days.

Even after it published its explanation, though, many were outraged that it was doing this at all. Was what they were doing evil? Hardly. I suspect most of the people involved were surprised that anyone was upset.

Google's Street View car

Smile, you're on Google's camera
Speaking of not doing evil, an impressive number of privacy missteps have come from the do-no-evil folks at the Googleplex.

Remember the images of Google's Street View cruising around Germany? In the spring of 2010, Google used those cars to build out its mapping service and location database. The problem was that Google also sucked up the locations of personal laptops, phones, and other Wi-Fi devices in the process, even confessing that it had spied on people's e-mails and Web-surfing activities.

Google's then CEO Eric Schmidt said it "screwed up" and suggested a Google engineer might have been at fault, not exactly a way to gain trust.

When this happened, Google was still stinging from a privacy issue with the now shuttered Google Buzz , a failed attempt at social. The problem was that Google tied Buzz to Gmail--nifty idea from a tech perspective--so that it automatically made your most frequent Gmail contacts into Google Buzz followers. In one case, a blogger complained that suddenly her abusive ex-husband was following her on Google Buzz through no choice of her own.

The outrage was immediate and loud and Google's refrain--trust us--fell on deaf ears. Google made a number of tweaks and eventually closed down the service.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes how Facebook will connect people to media James Martin/CNET

Facebook trips all over its efforts to increase sharing
Probably the only company that could compete with Google for privacy mishaps is Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, a believer in open everything, has backpedaled so many times over changes in the company's complicated and ever-changing privacy policies that it's hard to keep track.

The blunder that stands out is Beacon. This one dates back to 2007, so perhaps the now 27-year-old Zuckerberg has age as an excuse. Beacon was an advertising program that shared your Facebook activities on third-party partner sites and posted it all to their "news feeds," without warning or notification.

The whole thing was much-hyped by Zuckerberg, and it's likely he believed--and perhaps still believes--that it was a useful way to show people ads they would be most interested in.

When MoveOn.org criticized Beacon as violating users' privacy, Facebook came out said the system was innovative, not intrusive. As Facebook has grown up, it's made fewer missteps, but I expect we'll see some more biggies.

 

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