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To Social Networks & The Internet, Your Privacy Isn’t Private. Lock It Down.

3 May 2010 Ken Yeung 7 Comments

Privacy & Social NetworksThere’s been a lot of talk lately surrounding privacy and social networks like Facebook and geo-location services (FourSquare, Gowalla, Google Latitude, etc.) and I have been meaning to write a post about this issue for a while now. In light of the recent f8 conference and how reports surface that founder Mark Zuckerberg feels that privacy is overrated, it’s only appropo to look at how your data and, quite frankly, your life, is viewed online, both from a security standpoint and one of common decency.

Before you read any further, let me be abundantly clear…I’m not suggesting that you delete your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube or even MySpace accounts, regardless of what you think of the platforms, but what I am advocating is that you pay attention to what you’re posting online and make adjustments to ensure that nothing sinister or malicious could come from what you post. Just because we have the freedom to post videos or photos of our outings at the latest party or in a college dorm room does not mean that we don’t have to worry about that information coming back to bite you on the derriere. We’ve probably all seen the Law & Order: SVU episodes where the detectives somehow find trashy or incriminating evidence on the victim or suspect’s social network sites, right? And while law enforcement has the right (legally) to subpoena those records, one thing to take away for us as individuals is that even without law enforcement’s ability to pull information, chances are that your social network isn’t totally safeguarding your information.

BECOME THE MAYOR OF FOURSQUARE STALKING.

Privacy & Social Networks - Lalawag story on FourSquare safetyEarlier this year, a great post was written on the Los Angeles tech blog Lalawag by Melissa Rowley who talked about her experience with geo-location service FourSquare. I am a user of this service and love it very much, but one thing that really bothered me was the fact that you could auto post where you were checked in to Twitter and Facebook. Now once in a while that might be great – like if I’m at a conference and want my friends or colleagues to find me somewhere in the convention center or party OR if I’m volunteering at the local food bank & want to promote my company’s efforts. BUT, aside from the fact that those types of posts frequently would seem to be like status updates or even annoying when done frequently, I’d rather not broadcast it out to the world. Frankly, I don’t need to have millions of people who I don’t know find out where and when I’m doing laundry, seeing a doctor, where I go to do my banking, etc. – a bit intrusive…almost like I’m on The Truman Show.

What’s more is that FourSquare and quite possibly other geo-location websites will share your contact information with people who you’re friends with. So while you’re prone to following everyone on Twitter, with geo-location services, you’re just letting these “friends” get that much closer to finding out who you really are. For individuals who wish to be friends with others on geo-location sites, think about it this way, you’re basically becoming a big GPS device and by being friends, you’re giving people who you know only virtually a tracking device to know exactly where you are. And by pushing your check-ins and other details to more public sites like Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter, etc., you’re basically giving people the freedom to parse through your data and, well, quite potentially rob you or cause you some sort of harm.

Just read this story by Rowley that was posted on Lalawag:

…an unknown number showed up on my iPhone. I normally only answer calls from numbers I recognize, but I picked up anyway. The caller asked me why I hadn’t been to Runyon Canyon lately. Back when I lived in West Hollywood, I hiked in Runyon Canyon Park two hours a day and I checked in regularly. When I asked who was calling he hung up. Turns out Foursquare makes your cell phone number visible to anyone you befriend on the Foursquare.

PLEASE DON’T ROB ME, BRO!

TLT_privacy_03Although somewhat satirical, a website popped up a few months ago that really caught everyone’s attention and stirred the privacy pot a bit more. The site was called PleaseRobMe.com and the purpose of it was to showcase the fact that people were so easy to connect their social networks together – Facebook to Twitter, Qik to Twitter, YouTube to FriendFeed, etc that no one paid attention to the fact that while interconnected, there are potential disasters waiting to happen. The site was/is all about displaying people’s check-in’s and letting the public know when they weren’t home. Sounds a bit illegal, huh? It wasn’t…it’s not as if the site creators went to FourSquare to get the information. No, on the contrary, it’s public information…data that was received from user’s Twitter accounts since they had synced their check-in’s to push notifications to Twitter letting everyone know where they were. And, as you can tell from the name of the site, the thought was that by doing this sharing, you’re leaving yourself open to your home being robbed by someone while they knew you weren’t home.

Yes, I acknowledge the fact that you probably have a greater or equal chance of still being robbed by someone during the day when they know you’re at work (majority of the people are probably working away from home) or sometime during the day. But while PleaseRobMe.com wasn’t entirely meant for malicious purposes – and it seems that it wasn’t, the fact that they highlighted the dangers in “oversharing”, can’t be ignored.

But what is oversharing? It can be defined as information that is personal in nature yet is shared freely and detailed. Just because you have something to share means that you should share that news. The Internet is a vast frontier and is a massive communication tool at our disposal. We can easily share our news about our promotion and have it spread throughout the web in near real-time, thanks to the invention of Facebook and other real-time streams. And I’m sure you all know someone who’s done some oversharing as well – it’s not just with people who have romantic flings and post it on their profile pages or perhaps write potentially (and most likely) job-ending posts on their wall or blog because they would never think that their employers would see it. There’s too much liberty to post content and not enough self-censorship.

YOU SHOWED YOUR WHAT ONLINE??

Privacy & Social Networks - ChatrouletteHave you ever heard the phrase “We live in public”? It means that through the wonderful world of social media, we’ve become more social…more akin to broadcasting our lives out there without any censorship. In essence, social media has become the hippie generation of the 21st century. We’re all about easily sharing our wants, dreams, fears, attitudes, complaints and feedback without any reservation for who is hearing…or for any future consequences.

Take, for example, Chatroulette…not a social network known for its privacy issues, but one thing that you should be concerned about with privacy is that whatever you post or do on the Internet can surely come back to haunt you – maybe not now, but in the future when you least expect it. So for those who are freely showing their face and other “parts” on sites like Chatroulette…although you might think it’s funny, someone might leverage that embarrassing pose and choose to cause you some grief. Is this what you want your parents, family, loved ones to think about you?

THINK BEFORE YOU POST.

Privacy & Social Networks - Hold your horsesSo what are we all to do? We’d love to share the information with all of our friends, but we might think about privacy as something that’s guaranteed by third-party sites. On the contrary, I wouldn’t think of having privacy on sites like Facebook, Twitter or even MySpace as a absolute guarantee, but rather more as a nice attempt at making sure our information doesn’t get leaked to the Internet public. Yes, we’d like to post photos of our bachelor or bachelorette party on Facebook and tag all the right people, but become shocked when Facebook tweaks their privacy settings (all too often, it seems) and it results in our significant others viewing those photos. But in fact, we need to make sure that we’re comfortable with what goes online – perhaps a rule of thumb is to practice self-censorship on everything and also to think to yourself “would I be embarrassed or face any consequences if this information were to ever leak to the public?

Social networks aren’t blameless in this issue either. The fact is that while majority of customers are probably not paying for the service, there is some basic entitlements guaranteed by the United States Constitution (and I’m not a lawyer), but one of those rights is to privacy…and these social networks should make every good faith effort to ensure that the security and safety of the data we are providing them is as secure as possible.

Online privacy has been called the “Internet’s greatest bait and switch” by social media marketer & founding partner of marketing & PR firm Stage Two, Jeremy Toeman. In his post, Toeman says that we’ve been in losing privacy for a great many years and he even lists out the privacy flaws for some of the major services we’ve all used in the past: Geocities, Flickr, Delicious, Friendster, YouTube, MySpace, etc. Here are some things that Toeman suggests that you might want to do:

  • Make sure you are personally aware of the various nuances and ramifications of each of the services you use.
  • Think about how your choices to proactively share can impact not only yourself, but your family, coworkers, and friends.
  • Don’t forget about the future you.
  • Consider your real objectives.

You can read his blog post about privacy here.

Lastly, I’d like to call out one thing that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying in early 2010:

People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.

Zuckerberg continues on to go and say that privacy was no longer a “social norm” and had evolved over time. Well to that I say that while the attitude towards privacy may have thinned a little, the fact still remains that privacy is STILL privacy and should not be completely eroded to make it easier to share information. There is such a thing as being TOO social in social media.

But that, though might be T.M.I. (too much information).

Photo Credit: Poofy / sxc.hu & sgback / sxc.hu

Ken Yeung is a interactive strategist, project manager, and tech journalist. He's currently a Strategy and Research Content Lead at Orange Silicon Valley. Previously, he was the Bay Area Reporter for The Next Web, the Editor-in-Chief of Bub.blicio.us and a correspondent for Network Solutions' small business blog. These words are his own and not of his employer.
  • http://www.twitter.com/mweb Mike Weber (@mweb)

    Another interesting note on privacy revolves around confusion…

    Booshaka polls realtime search results from Facebook profiles/content set to “everyone.” Check out this search for the word privacy…

    http://www.booshaka.com/?q=privacy

    Does it seem like people who are worried about privacy would be blasting out their updates to “everyone?” Clearly, Facebook hasn't communicated this well to its users. I'm all for allowing the option to post publicly from FB but what FB has done so far is a bit of a bait & switch and a lot of people don't know what's going on.

  • http://www.thelettertwo.com Ken Yeung

    Hi Mike -

    Thanks for your comment…you're right…Facebook seems to have done a really good job at executing a large bait & switch when it comes to privacy. Nearly a couple years ago, we all probably started getting onto Facebook to share with our friends and now every time they make a new change to the site – redesign, functionality shift, etc., groups are popping up saying that they don't like the new design to revert back to the old. But, instead, they should be forming groups saying that they don't want the privacy loopholes, because that's always what happens. Something always breaks – whether intentionally or not – and people find out that their privacy settings have changed to become more public. It seems like Zuckerberg is saying that he wants his house to be totally public, regardless of what the tenants really want for their privacy.

    So who really dictates privacy? The landlord or the tenants?

  • http://www.twitter.com/mweb Mike Weber (@mweb)

    I'm of the belief that the tenants need to have a “take it or leave it” type of approach. If they disagree with the privacy options, competition *should* fill the void if the market is attractive.

    However, this Facebook beast is unique in its largeness and the bait & switch that occurred. Remember when Facebook bragged about its closed network and privacy options over MySpace? It was known as the safe and private social network for friends and family. People still talk of FB that way via word of mouth, but new users will be recommended to share their content publicly, in contrast to their understanding of what Facebook is for.

    With regards to design changes, people will always resist change… I think the biggest design changes are yet to come. Facebook needs to seriously overhaul it's homepage and profile pages to better accomodate the potential of the Open Graph and “likes,” right now the “on Facebook” implementation seems really half baked – big changes must be coming. Not to mention search… you can search and see what people set to “everyone” are saying on Facebook but it's so cumbersome to find a site like Booshaka makes it a lot easier (like Twitter search!). =)

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  • http://www.seoconsult.co.uk Jack

    What a nice post this is!surely.I totally agree this.
    You are right that our privacy is not safe now on the social networking or the internet.We all ,who use internet must think about it bacause we are sharing ourself so publically as you know also.
    Great information..

  • http://www.seoconsult.co.uk Jack

    Agree with this.
    Privacy is not safe now on the social networking or the internet.We all ,who use internet must think about it bacause we are sharing ourself so publically

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    un blog très bien écrit qui expliquent le role des marketeurs,bravo!