Any opinions expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of my employer (I'm self-employed).

Jun 23, 2011

Giving up your privacy for nothing at Yahoo News

UPDATE Nov. 10th: The story about the dog turned out to be a hoax. Pheew.

This weekend I read a somewhat disturbing article on Yahoo News about a Jewish court sentencing a dog to death by stoning by children and decided to share the story on Twitter. Most news sites include buttons to conveniently tweet articles, Yahoo News is no exception. I clicked the "Retweet" button and expected to see the Twitter confirmation screen as I was already signed in to Twitter. But wait!
Yahoo News wants me to let TweetMeme use my account, that was a surprise. Usually I don't bother reading these pop-ups, I just close the window and then go on to share the link manually. But this was Yahoo News, so I started reading the pop-up to see what they were hoping I would agree to. Turns out it wasn't just the article about stoning the dog that was disturbing.

Yahoo News are pushing an app that can do a lot more than just sharing a link. They're asking me to give the app complete control of my Twitter profile. To highlight the fundamental problems here, I'll explain what I mean with the word privacy — it means you get to decide who gets access to your information, you can decide to have your information deleted, and you're able to correct information that might be wrong. The lack of privacy means that someone else are calling the shots with your personal information.

We give up privacy for many reasons. You let your employer know where you live, along with your SSN and account number, so they can pay your salary, manage taxes, and send you a piece of paper documenting your salary. You let your doctor keep a track record of your medical condition because it might be important if you get ill in the future. At a grocery store you might give up your name and address and let all your purchases be traced in order to get a membership discount card. You get the picture, in many cases we give up our privacy for some (perceived) benefit. There is a cost-benefit analysis involved when we give up our information, although both the cost and benefit in many cases are intangible. In turn this means we are often forced to base privacy decisions on our gut feeling.

Now back to Yahoo News and TweetMeme. My benefit from surrendering my Twitter profile to TweetMeme is that I'll share a link to the article on Twitter. That's it, that's all I'll achieve. There are no other benefits mentioned in the popup either. If we look at my alternatives I could for example easily post the link myself on Twitter — posting the link through TweetMeme arguably gives me very little benefit!

With the minuscule benefit established, let's look at my privacy cost. If we look a bit down the list of things TweetMeme wants to do with my account, we find the single bullet point describing what I was actually trying to do: "Post Tweets for you". I just wanted to tweet the story. But note the wording that implies that they will not start tweeting through my account unless I've actively triggered them to tweet something. <speculation>I'm not convinced that's necessarily true</speculation>, but I refuse to give up my account to find out.

Starting from the top of the list again, we can summarize all the stuff TweetMeme want's to do other than tweeting the link for me. And that's a lot. For starter's they want to see my tweets and who I follow. That's public information, so I really don't feel like I'm giving anything away here. Anyone can follow me on Twitter if they want. But TweetMeme also wants to make me follow new people! I'm not sure why, not a single benefit crosses my mind. On the down side, "follows" that you don't approve of would be misleading to your followers. After all, you are to a degree endorsing the accounts you follow.  Here's a good blog post on the implications of auto-following your bot followers, discussing the problem more in depth.

Now it's best to start a new paragraph as things get significantly worse. TweetMeme also wants to be able to update my profile. In case you've forgot: The Twitter profile settings page looks like this.

This is my Twitter identity! Giving up control of my Twitter identity seems completely irrelevant to the original goal of tweeting an article, wouldn't you agree? What are the odds that TweetMeme would be able to update this information in ANY meaningful way? Why on earth would they want to change any of this information?

Finally, TweetMeme want's me to grant them access my direct messages until June 30th, 2011. If there's anything that carries an essence of private information on Twitter, it's the direct messages. When you're writing a direct message to someone it's because you don't want to share it with anyone else, right? And it's not just my own privacy I'd throw overboard here. My Twitter followers would send me direct messages, unaware that I was sharing them with TweetMeme — and I have no idea what their future messages might contain. From a privacy perspective, that's a disaster.

It's a good thing that they point out that TweetMeme can't see my Twitter password. TweetMeme wouldn't be able to to much more with my profile if I gave them my password. Except changing the password of course.

Twitter itself offers several options to share webpages with a tweet button that does not require users to install any Twitter apps. If you're running a website please give your users this option instead of encouraging them throw their privacy overboard with TweetMeme like Yahoo News does.


  1. The story was a hoax, which you should probably mention on your blog.

  2. You're right, I wasn't aware of that. Thanks for the heads up!

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