Does Social Media Privacy Exist?

These days, everyone is concerned about social media privacy and security.  Lawsuits are fought over whether an employer has the right to look at and consider an employee’s Facebook page when making hiring and firing decisions.  Divorce proceedings have been started over Facebook posts as spouses hook up with (often literally) their exes.    Friends and family make posts that can tank entire lawsuits and/or destroy attorney-client privilege.

[box type=”info”] The bottom line is that “social media privacy” is an oxymoron.[/box]

The entire point of social media is to connect, share, and exchange information with like-minded peers, to reconnect with old flames, to make new “friends,” and to engage in a social enterprise.  This is at its core, inherently, and by design, not private.

The only way to keep what you put online private is not to put it online at all.   Even if you go into every single one of your social networks and make the privacy settings as strict as possible, the managers of that network can get your data.   And there are always the hackers as data breaches have proven time and again.  It only takes one disgruntled employee with the right access to rain down a world of privacy problems on unsuspecting users.  The bottom line is that once you choose to play in the social media space, all you can do is manage the risk that your privacy will be breached.

Social Media Privacy

From my experience with talking to legal and technology professionals, I’ve found five trends that present privacy threats to those who use social media sites:

1. Location-Based Services

Don’t even get me started.  The privacy concerns with this are so enormous that I would need an entire post just to touch on them.  Talk about a stalker’s dream.  Suffice it to say that the “cool” factor of location services has far outpaced any consideration of the risks presented to personal and online security.

Location-Based Services

2. Single-Access Sign-on

Single access sign-on is extremely convenient.  From a single location, you can look at and manage all of your social media networks.  But there is a downside to this convenience.  As you begin to share information across networks, the websites may begin to share that information.  Do you really want everything that you post on Facebook to appear on every single one of your social networks?  That very well could happen in the absence of stricter privacy measures.

Facebook Connect

Source: Facebook

Don’t believe me?  Here is a cautionary tale from Matt Honan, a well-respected technology writer:

“In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.
“In many ways, this was all my fault. My accounts were daisy-chained together. Getting into Amazon let my hackers get into my Apple ID account, which helped them get into Gmail, which gave them access to Twitter. Had I used two-factor authentication for my Google account, it’s possible that none of this would have happened, because their ultimate goal was always to take over my Twitter account and wreak havoc. Lulz.”

3. Mergers and Shutdowns

Be aware that social media companies sell, merge and recombine all the time.  When this happens, your data goes with the company being acquired.   Some social media sites are better at protecting privacy than others.   You should be sure you have read and understand the site’s privacy protections.  If they are non-existent or weak, in all likelihood your data will be completely unprotected in the event of a purchase or if the site goes out of business.

4. Lack of Standardization of Privacy Policies

Right now there is no standardization to how social media networks treat your personal information.  Social networks are sitting on a wealth of data about their users — preferences, email addresses, physical addresses, etc. — this information could be misused whether intentionally or not.

Compounding this problem is the fact that many users don’t realize what they are agreeing to when they open their information in order to gain access to a feature or to participate in a promotion.  At some point there may be legislation mandating certain privacy standards, but until that occurs, it’s user beware.  If you are uncertain, don’t agree.

5. Marketing v. Invasion of Privacy

The chief value to marketers of your social information is the ability to know what you like and don’t like.  This enables them to target marketing specifically designed to appeal to you.  This is known as behavioral advertising, and it’s becoming the online marketing standard.

I mean, from a marketing perspective, what’s better than being able to deliver a specific ad targeted to a person’s interest?  But as someone providing your information to these marketers, you should be aware of what information about you is available.

The chief privacy officer for a major marketing company once told me that she didn’t see the problem with tracking visitors online because the information was “just” marketing data and therefore harmless.

And now Facebook has decided (not for the first time) that they are sitting on a marketing gold mine in the form of their 900,000,000 users.  By leveraging your personal data, Facebook stands to make a fortune by matching your phone number and email address to merchants interested in reaching you. Facebook will allow merchants to target advertising specifically to the people most likely to buy.

Facebook Email

It works like this:  A merchant has your email address, and this address is linked to your purchasing history.  From this, the merchant knows that you are a Big Spender.  Not only that, they know WHAT you buy.  And they want you to buy more. Enter Facebook.  The merchant provides Facebook with your email address; Facebook matches it up to all of the amazing information (your email, phone number, work place, friends, home address, etc.) that you have blissfully given them so that you can share with your “friends.”

Facebook then ensures that the targeted message reaches you.  After all, they know when you are online.  Yikes?  Yes.  But as Facebook is quick to point out, it works, and it is in fact the best opportunity for Facebook to join the ranks of the Big Boys in online advertising (Google Adwords! Bing AdCenter!).  The fact that this is your privacy we are talking about is entirely beside the point.

Final Thoughts

Social networks are here to stay, and it is incumbent upon those of us who use them to educate ourselves.  Some privacy risks may be worth taking; others can be avoided entirely; and some are just the cost of doing business with a social network.  Regardless, you should be aware of the risks and trade-offs of your online activity.

Social advertising can be a good thing. Seeing ads that are relevant to you and that are not intrusive because they’re displaying a product you want — this is a good thing.  But we should remain educated about what information is shared accordingly.

But I never make the mistake of thinking any of my online information is private unless I’ve done everything I know to ensure that.


About the Author
Elizabeth Bowles

Elizabeth Bowles

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