File Under: Identity, Web Standards

New Privacy Icons Aim to Save You From Yourself

A few of the proposed privacy icons

Mozilla has taken the lead among browser vendors to make a site’s privacy settings more explicitly visible. It’s doing so by proposing visual cues in the browser that indicate what level of privacy you’re currently browsing at, and what pieces of your personal data the site you’re currently visiting is sharing with the rest of the web.

Earlier this year, Mozilla’s head user experience designer Aza Raskin proposed creating a set of icons to denote the privacy policy of a website. Now, after getting feedback from a wide range of interested groups — from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Federal Trade Commission — Raskin has drawn up a new and improved icon set.

The idea behind Raskin’s proposal is that the browser is the most logical place to display identity and privacy information to the user as they click around on the social web. The end goal is to produce a set for warnings similar to the way that Firefox (and other browsers) currently handle phishing attack warnings, using visual icons and simple language to explain what you’re getting into when you load a page with a different level of privacy or security.

For the active social web user, keeping track of which bits of your data are public and which are private on different sites is a chore. Some websites share your photos, status updates, your list of friends, who you’re following and other data default. Some share nothing. The rest are somewhere in the middle.

Part of the problem is the privacy policies themselves. They are complex, mind-numbingly long legal documents. We routinely ignore them, breezing past them by clicking “I agree.” Once clicked, your rights are compromised, and you may not be able to fully restore them.

A set of icons in the browser, to quickly and easily allow users to know what will happen to their data, means that users don’t need a law degree to know what’s happening to their images, status updates and other data.

The big difference between privacy icons and the phishing warnings your browser already offers, is that these icons are targeted at the websites themselves. The biggest counter-argument to Raskin’s proposal is that there’s nothing stopping a site from displaying these icons and then doing the opposite.

Raskin’s solution is to make the privacy icons supersede the written privacy policy. “When you add a Privacy Icon to your privacy policy,” writes Raskin, “it says the equivalent of ‘No matter what the rest of this privacy policy says, the following is true and preempts anything else in this document…’”

In other words, sites using the icons maliciously would face legal consequences. Of course differences in international laws mean enforcing such violations would be complex.

Still, as Raskin points out, privacy policies are fast becoming a selling point for many sites. Nearly every site we’ve tested lately has some sort of large, obvious banner that proudly proclaims the site will never share your data. Those are the kinds of sites, says Raskin, that would adopt privacy icons.

But it’s still unlikely any site would ever adopt the negative icons. If you’re sharing everything users give you with anyone who pays for it, you probably don’t want to advertise that. So the privacy icons actually become most useful when they aren’t present. Of course, as Raskin writes, “people don’t generally don’t notice an absence; just a presence.”

The solution to that problem is to make the privacy icons machine readable. The workflow would be something like this: You visit a website and decide to sign up. When Firefox encounters the sign-up form, it looks for the privacy icon. If it finds it, Firefox displays it. If Firefox doesn’t see an icon it warns you that your information may be shared using the negative icon. Either way, you know where you stand.

For now the privacy icons, good idea though they may be, are a long way from reality. Raskin calls the current mockups an “alpha” release and since Raskin is leaving Mozilla, the future of the project is unclear. If you’d like to get involved, head over the Mozilla Drumbeat Privacy Icons project page.

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