(A version of this post originally appeared on Medium)
Last week longtime local publisher Howard Owens, founder of the online news site the Batavian, launched a new publication covering Wyoming County in upstate New York. Buried in a parenthetical within his welcome message to readers was a fascinating promise: “We’ll also respect your privacy by not gathering personal data to distribute to multinational media conglomerates for so-called ‘targeted advertising.’”
This kind of explicit promise regarding reader privacy is increasingly important and all too rare.
Even though stories about government surveillance, commercial tracking and financial data theft have become commonplace in the press over the last two years, news organizations are still loath to talk about their own practices in regards to reader privacy. It’s time for some real talk about what we owe our readers in the age of big data and mass surveillance.
Just last week this blog published an analysis of news organizations’ use of encrypted HTTPS connections. “Virtually none of the top news websites,” writes Kevin Gallagher, “including all those who have reported on the Snowden documents — have adopted the most basic of security measures to protect the integrity of their content and the privacy of their readers.” Without this encrypted connection it becomes possible to essentially eavesdrop on what people are reading online, as the NSA did with people who visited the Wikileaks website.
Earlier this year, in a report on the challenges of encrypting news websites, theWashington Post pointed out how much this kind of surveillance can reveal about someone. “Among the issues potentially illuminated by what you choose to read, advocates say, are your health concerns, financial anxieties, sexual orientation and political leanings.”
And yet, the use of encrypted connections on news websites is just one part of a much larger and more complex issue. Continue reading