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Nations or corporations – Who poses the biggest threat to online privacy?

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This week has reminded us of the twin threats online privacy currently faces from both the public and private arenas, with news of a new FBI surveillance unit designed to crack emerging technologies, and the revelation that Apple may be storing every word you say to the iPhone 4S voice assistant Siri.

So where do we start? How about on Wednesday, when ex Google boss Eric Schimdt took to the stage at the London Science Museum to warn that governments posed the biggest threat to online privacy and indeed the very future of the internet. It didn’t take long for Schmidt’s warning ring true, with news emerging on the same day that the FBI has been busy staffing the Domestic Communications Assistance Center, a new unit designed to create technologies that will help the FBI monitor “emerging technologies” such as VoIP.

Backdoor access

According to CNET, which broke the story, the DCAC has been flying very much under the radar in order to avoid creating too much of a footprint. There’s no website, no public debate and hardly any political debate over the new agency, despite having already been allocated $54 million by the Senate. Nevertheless, CNET pieced together information from interviews, internal government documents and job postings to conclude the DCAC has a mandate covering everything from intercepting Skype conversations, to analysing data from social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

The revelations came just weeks after it emerged that the FBI is trying to set-up backdoor access points to a wide range of social sites and communications services, including VoIP providers like Skype, social networks and email providers. The FBI wants amendments to the CLEA law that allows them to implement these surveillance backdoors and is pressuring internet companies not to oppose them.

Siri is listening..

But while American citizens fret over government surveillance plans, it was revealed that one of the country’s most famous corporations is worried about privacy threats from Apple. Reports emerged on Thursday that IBM bans employees from using the iPhone 4S’ voice activated Siri feature, which subsequently shone a spotlight on Apple’s less than transparent privacy policy around the service.

IBM’s decision to ban Siri is because Apple records and stores its users’ data. This can potentially include any requests made to Siri (such as find me the nearest sexual health clinic), and even personal messages and emails that have been voice-dictated. As ACLU’s blog pointed out back in March, Apple’s privacy policy doesn’t make clear who has access to this data and where it’s stored. But it does say that Apple reserves the right to share the data with “Apple’s partners who are providing related services to Apple.” This has obviously got IBM spooked over what access Apple might have to sensitive company secrets. And if it’s got IBM spooked, then it should probably get you spooked too!

Eric Schmidt was right this week to point out the threat that governments pose to online privacy, but he should probably admit that private companies such as Apple, and of course Google, are not that far behind.

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