Privacy leaks hit Facebook, Google, AT&T

AT&T’s Web site leaked the e-mail addresses of about 114,000 iPad owners. A browser extension was discovered to leak your Web history to, and if you didn’t configure it properly, Google Buzz initially could leak your correspondents’ identities.

YouPorn was sued for allegedly taking advantage of a privacy leak that revealed what Web sites had been visited. The leak of Gawker’s user database led LinkedIn to disable passwords of users whose e-mail addresses appeared in the file. The discovery that Facebook leaked some user data to advertisers, prompting embarrassing questions from Congress, didn’t stop CEO Mark Zuckerberg from being named Time magazine’s person of the year.

Google responded to privacy concerns by allowing encrypted Web searches. Congress’ response was less successful: Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, announced widely panned privacy legislation and lost his bid for re-election a few months later. Democrat Bobby Rush’s proposal was no more successful. And after over a decade of discussing the topic, U.S. senators couldn’t even begin to agree on what kind of new privacy laws are needed. Politicians also failed to advance a proposal backed by Google, Microsoft, and AT&T to update a 1986 law to protect cloud computing privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission decided a “Do Not Track” mechanism for the Web would be nice, but stopped short of saying it should be mandated by law. Not to be left out, the Commerce Department released its own report two weeks later, which took a small step toward endorsing new federal laws regulating companies’ data collection practices and requiring that customers be notified of data breaches. Google’s congressional critics called for an FTC investigation of its accidental interception of Wi-Fi data, which did not result in a fine.

Concerns over privacy leaks motivated criticism of the federal government, which admitted that full-body scans of Americans entering a federal courthouse were being permanently recorded, prompting worries that would happen with scanners at airports. The Transportation Security Agency denied it, but leaked internal documents showed machines could be configured to do so. Something akin to a national furor, complete with congressional condemnation and an appearance on the Colbert Report, arose after the TSA said travelers at certain airports would be given the choice of scanners or a police-style pat down with what became known as “genital probing.”

The biggest leaks of the year, of course, came from WikiLeaks and its impenitent spokesman Julian Assange. WikiLeaks started with the leak of a video shot by an Apache helicopter, continued with the release of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military files related to Afghanistan and Iraq, and achieved international fame and notoriety with last month’s slow-motion release of internal State Department cables. While Washington officialdom has been publicly fuming, complete with calls for Assange to be charged with espionage, the cypherpunk-turned-self-described journalist has been holding press conferences in London while fending off an unrelated extradition attempt from Sweden.