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Microsoft to Use Privacy in Battle with Google

Does it take more than a shirt printed with the word "private" and lip service for a company to prove how important your privacy is to it?

The past year was full of privacy leaks, so it's popular for companies to jump on the privacy bandwagon. Does it take more than a shirt printed with the word "private" and lip service for a company to prove how important your privacy is to it?

Dean Hachamovitch, the Microsoft VP who oversees IE, discussed IE9, the browser market, and, in particular, privacy at the All Things Digital CES event last week. Hachamovitch spent most of the interview talking about Microsoft's commitment to privacy. While it's true that Microsoft deserves praise for the anti-tracking protection in IE9, unlike when it tossed out privacy in favor of advertising revenue in IE8, it's more likely that Microsoft's motives are centered on competing on a privacy platform to beat out Google.

UPDATED 1/14: I couldn't help be drawn to write about a topic where an executive from a major software company shows up for a giant event wearing a T-shirt that says "private." (Picture used by permission.) I'm not the only privacy advocate who felt this way.

I agree with a blog post by Christopher Soghoian, who writes in his Slight Paranoia blog that it seems as if the Microsoft VP used this Walt Mossberg interview to fire shots at Google (what else is new?). Soghoian contacted me and asked me to credit his blog ... which I'm happy to do. It's an excellent read and I've been following him for a while. But the T-shirt bit is Hachamovitch's trademark -- he typically appears at conferences garbed in a black T-shirt with a single word that summarizes his position. When he chose "private" this year ... well, I can't count how many times I've asked Microsoft PR specific questions regarding how they protect users' privacy, only to be deflected and directed to a privacy policy written years ago.

So it is somewhat ironic how Hachamovitch used the public interview at CES to craft "privacy" as Microsoft's latest competitive position:

Mossberg: A cynical journalist might suggest that you're embracing privacy and wearing a shirt because Firefox et al are eating your lunch.

Hachamovitch: Paying Windows customers want a great experience that includes privacy, including through their browser. But another way to view people who use browsers is that they're objects to be boxed and sold. We don't believe that. We believe Windows customers should have a great experience with their browser.

Mossberg: As opposed to?

Hachamovitch: Well, Chrome, for instance, is funded by advertising.

Microsoft's decision to protect its users' privacy has some very definitive limits. Over the years, Microsoft has spurned users' privacy in favor of assisting law enforcement and intelligence agencies obtain private user data. Microsoft spies on its users for free, unlike Google which at least charges law enforcement $25 per user to hand over data. The Redmond giant offers the computer forensic software COFEE for free to law enforcement, helping their efforts to extract private data from Windows computers.

Soghoian points out that this is where Microsoft should take notice of Twitter which fought to protect its users' privacy, and fought a gag order in response to the WikiLeaks subpoena when no one would have even known. I couldn't agree more. In the end, this prioritizing of its users' privacy over government prying will pay off. That bold move on Twitter's part will be a goldmine in PR and settles it in users' minds that their privacy IS important to Twitter . . . not just a word on a shirt or lip service.

Likewise, if Microsoft loved privacy so much it has the power to give more such tools to regular users. It could answer questions on its storage, encryption, deletion policies of data kept on Windows Live. It could encrypt the cloud stored data of its Live@edu customers. It has also been accused of using ads as a cover for data mining -- which included sniffing browser histories.

No one can claim that Google is an icon of privacy, so perhaps it's smart to play on people's fears in this way. But it's hard to tell which Big Brother, Google or Microsoft, is bigger. For instance, Facebook is no friend of privacy yet Microsoft is trying to patent Facebook's privacy system. Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook in 2007, calling it a "strategic alliance." Recently, Bing became the search engine provider for Facebook.

I contacted Microsoft and asked for a response to any of these concerns. Microsoft replied "no comment" to all when I posed these questions regarding the privacy patent:

  • Is this an offensive or defensive patent?
  • Is this patent to Facebook-like privacy settings aimed at Google or any other major competitor of Facebook and Microsoft that has an interest in social networks?
  • Is Microsoft considering giving Facebook a license?

Yes, Microsoft is getting better about privacy but it has a long way to go, starting with the definition of what privacy is to its regular users who are usually also paying customers . . . not just providing privacy until the government asks it not to.

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