Having recently upgraded to Mac OS X Lion, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the past couple of weeks reinstalling software on and as-needed basis. One package I’ve been reluctant to reload is Adobe’s Flash player, the de facto media delivery mechanism for the desktop web and a program which knows how to eat CPU and burn up your machine like no other.
While I’ve railed against Flash for its processor greed and propensity for cooking chips in the past (mainly with workarounds and avoidance techniques), I’ve grown so used to these shortcomings and working around them that they are no longer my primary concern when loading my machine with Adobe’s player.
With the release of version 10.3 back in May 2011, Flash gained for the first time a pane in the Mac OS’ System Preferences application. It seems almost incredible that it wasn’t until earlier this year that a piece of software present on 99% of all internet connected computers, 8.1% of which are Macs, didn’t have an OS-conventional approach to settings alteration. Finally setting Flash preferences falls in line with convention. But the addition of the Flash Player preference pane has actually drawn my attention to what I view as an industry-wide problem with ensuring user privacy and security.
You see, with 2.1 billion people connected to the web and more than 1 in 3 using Facebook, privacy and security have become quite the hot topic of late. More people are sharing more information and are, rightly, more concerned about where it’s going and what it’s being used for; as the network becomes the computer (many buy a laptop ‘just to get on Facebook’ and have little interest in how they get there), makers of local and remote software platforms need to have a clear focus on keeping that data safe.
My concern was raised while browsing through the new preference pane that installs with Flash, and the default settings chosen by Adobe. There are four key areas where the user is given the option to dictate the behaviour of the Flash player: offline storage, camera, media playback and updating. Automatic updates for a software platform with as dubious a security history as Flash is an absolutely welcome and necessarily enabled by default. Similarly, the player will request access to the camera and microphone on a case-by-case basis, a good choice given the proliferation of webcam-equipped laptops.
Offline storage and peer-assisted networking, however, are enabled by default. Given the zeal with which Flash consumes my CPU cycles, I’m not sure I would want it to have free reign over my network connection, and given its chequered security record I’m not convinced that allowing it offline storage by default is such a bright idea either.
The main problem I have with these default settings, though, is that they will probably never be changed, which is why companies like Adobe need to take steps further than just chucking in a preference pane with their app – my mother hasn’t ever and likely will never open System Preferences, and I’m sure she’s not alone. There are necessary changes which need to be made by any company responsible for data handling, even if they are merely providing the conduit (as Adobe does with Flash player).
Firstly, the default security and privacy setting must be ‘lockdown’. Flash shouldn’t be assuming control of a user’s bandwidth or storing files on their machine by default any more than it should be automatically serving up a webcam feed without prompting. The effect of a default feature lockout is that user is introduced to the preference pane and forced to actively make decisions about their privacy and security rather than relying on the stock settings. They needn’t feel bothered – after all, they only have to set it up once and forget about it – but they can now browse with confidence in the knowledge that their information is protected to their very own specifications, and just like everybody has different data, everybody values that data differently.
Microsoft actually has tried something akin this approach twice in the past, first with the variable ‘privacy level’ control in the Internet Options control panel, and more recently with the UAC layer introduced with Windows Vista. Between these two approaches, the company has actually got all of the right ideas. The user needs to be jolted into taking a more active role in their security through dialogs such as UAC, and the variable security level controls provide a useful abstract for casual users with the option for fine control for those who require it. Unfortunately, these concepts have both failed in their execution. UAC is widely derided and often disabled because of its irritating frequency, and the user security variables, like most good ideas from Microsoft, are buried under layers of dialogs and menus, effectively rendering them invisible to the casual user.
By switching the defaults to ‘off’ and gently, but firmly, prompting the user to engage with their online security and privacy, responsible companies can educate their (massive) user base and improve the quality of their experience by placing the decision making process in the hands of the user. While the industry aspires to give an experience which ‘just works’, this is one area where the user should definitely be involved – these are choices which people make every day when they shield their PIN at the ATM, don’t give out their phone number to strangers and ask to see ID from the guy at the door claiming he’s from the gas company. When the data involved is personal, it should be the person, not Adobe or Apple or Google or Microsoft, making the call on how it is protected.