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This Week in Tech: Google’s Surveillance Challenge, Privacy Worries and Instagram Videos

| June 21, 2013
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(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Google on Surveillance

Earlier this week, Google cited its right under the First Amendment to disclose more details to the public about its role in the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.

In a document filed with the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the company said it needed to reveal more because “Google’s reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media.”

This highly unusual legal challenge came, according to the Wall Street Journal, after “contentious discussions” between Google and  the Justice Department failed to produce agreement that the company could be more transparent about its involvement in the secret data-sharing program known as Prism.

In the filing, the company argued that “these are matters of significant weight and importance, and transparency is critical to advancing public debate in a thoughtful and democratic manner.”

Firefox and Cookies

Another significant Internet company, the non-profit Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, announced it is developing blocking technology that will eventually allow hundreds of millions of users to limit the most common method used by companies to track their movements on the Web.

“We’re trying to change the dynamic so that trackers behave better,” said Brendan Eich, chief technology officer at Mozilla.

Mozilla’s efforts are not focused on the kinds of surveillance conducted by government agencies such as the National Security Agency, but on the placement of “cookies” in users’ browsers that allow third parties to track which Web sites they visit.

Advertisers typically use this method to target ads to users as they surf the Web.

Instagram Video

This week brought another round in the ongoing Facebook-Twitter competition, as Facebook’s Instagram introduced a feature allowing video clips of 15 seconds as “another way to share your stories.”

This move comes roughly half a year after Twitter introduced its Vine video feature. The Vine videos are constrained to six seconds and looping, whereas the Instagram product is non-looping.

The result is a very difference user experience, said analysts interviewed by Cnet, making Instagram’s move less directly competitive with Twitter and more the launch of an alternative story-telling channel.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that one key demographic of Facebook users – teenagers – reports “waning enthusiasm” for the giant social network, preferring Instagram and other options for sharing content with their friends. The study also reported that teens use many techniques, including inside jokes to cloak their meaning and protect their privacy online.

Google Glass and Privacy

Finally, government officials from seven countries this week asked Google to address privacy concerns raised by its wearable computer device, Glass.

Officials from Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Israel and Switzerland sent a letter to Google’s CEO, Larry Page, stating: “We would be very interested in hearing about the privacy implications of this new product and the steps you are taking to ensure that, as you move forward with Google Glass, individuals’ privacy rights are respected around the world.”

Page has dismissed such concerns in the past as the usual fears that emerge when the company introduces a new, previously unknown technology, and that they rarely turn out to be “an actual concern.”

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Category: Economy, Technology

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About the Author ()

David Weir is Senior Editor, Online News for KQED. He is a veteran journalist who co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting, and was a reporter, writer and editor at numerous media companies, including Rolling Stone, Salon, Wired Digital, California Magazine, Mother Jones, 7x7, and Excite@Home. He has published four books and his articles have appeared in many publications including The Economist, The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Nation, LA Weekly, San Jose Mercury News, Wired News and Salon. Reach David Weir at david.a.weir@gmail.com.

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