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YouTube Privacy and Security: It's Not What You Think

I recently encountered a situation wherein an individual created a video of private material without my knowledge and consent, placed it on YouTube as unlisted, then refused to remove it with the justification that switching it to private was proper amelioration.

An unlisted video means only those who know the link can view it. YouTube’s site indicates it will not appear in its public spaces (search results, your channel, or the Browse page). You don’t need an account to watch it, and there isn’t a 25 person sharing limit. Although your video won’t appear in YouTube’s public spaces, links could still end up on the web if put out there by those with whom you shared the URL. Users are thus advised to mark the video as private.

If your video is set to private, only you and up to 50 others you invite can view it. Again, it will not (according to YouTube) appear on your channel, in search results, or in playlists etc.

Because I am reasonably tech savvy, I shared the below information with the aforesaid individual in an appeal to basic decency, common sense, and respectful use of internet tools. To date it has been unsuccessful; in part due to a naive belief in YouTube’s representations. I suspect the other piece is sheer asininity, but let’s leave that for another time. Or not…

It is particularly important during times like these to compel entities such as YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media or Web 2.0 brands to stay on top of their privacy and security issues - and to maintain flexibility when a breach renders policies or guidelines less effective.

For instance, in order for YouTube to remove content, an individual must be uniquely identifiable: by voice, full name, image, Social Security number, contact information (email, address, etc.), or bank account. If it’s address information and you are not named, you’re out of luck. Nor does it matter if you can identify yourself, as this alone doesn’t make you unique to others.

As a policy consultant, I appreciate the value of setting such parameters. Nonetheless, the upshot with YouTube is I could film portions of your home without your knowledge and consent, then upload it as an unlisted or private video to be seen by whomever I please. That you didn’t approve this might have some bearing on YouTube’s decision-making process, but you are unlikely to succeed in having the video removed from another’s channel.

Such a bitter pill is more difficult to swallow when one considers how easy it is to pierce YouTube’s veil of privacy. Entering generically related terms in Google produced hundreds of videos the creators most likely believe are unlisted and inaccessible to the public when they are not. The growing list of new ones continues to be indexed, and similar results were produced for those presumed to be private.

In addition, by slightly tweaking the original link to a private or unlisted YouTube video, one can be led to that video. But we’re not done. YouTube creates four images from uploaded videos. A cursory Google search will produce the URLs one can couple with the video id to locate images for what should be private or unlisted content available only to those of one’s choosing.

Having said all the above, I’ve no means of determining how many videos were exposed because of sharing beyond the expected group…but it’s not likely to be all of them. Nor am I advocating paranoia via this information about privacy loopholes. However, it becomes increasingly clear, at least to me, that YouTube should accommodate well beyond its ‘uniquely identifiable’ criteria until it can better protect what is ultimately more accessible than it should be.

More later on the end result of my experience.

Doña Keating is President and CEO of Professional Options, a prominent innovator in the policy and management consulting industry which provides solutions for businesses, organisations and governmental agencies. She is also a principal in K2 Strategic Solutions, a partnership between Professional Options and Keating Consulting Service which has a combined 50 year history of providing information technology, policy, and management consulting.

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