Blown To Bits

Oh Dear, A Windows Messenger Privacy Mess

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

In the world of social media, it is hard to get the privacy defaults right, because the whole point of social media is to connect with other people. So you want to make that easy, so people don’t have to fight the system. And of course there is a network effect so the designers tip toward connecting more people to each other rather than less, where there is a choice. They don’t always get the design right, as the Google Buzz fiasco showed.

But then things happen that are just bugs, or unanticipated reactions between multiple databases and applications. In which category it seems the current problem with Microsoft Messenger falls. InfoWorld explains it thus:

Consider this sobering scenario: You and your boss use Windows Live Messenger (or MSN Messenger or Windows Messenger) to keep in touch. One day, you get a job offer from Snidely Whiplash at a competing company across town. You and Snidely have a brief IM conversation, using Messenger. Innocent and private, yes? Well, no.

The next time your boss logs into Hotmail — not Messenger, mind you, but Hotmail — your boss glances at the initial Hotmail screen and sees that you and Snidely have become “friends.” That’s what the notice says: “Woody Leonhard and Snidely Whiplash are now friends.”

Or think wife and girlfriend, instead of boss and competitor. Any two people with whom you are IM’ing who should certainly not be made aware that they are both part of your social circle.

This problem persists no matter how you have the privacy settings set. It’s the sort of high-stakes privacy glitch that undermines people’s trust in the entire Internet. Who knows what will go wrong with the next release of your favorite communications app?

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