The Dark Side of Social Media and Privacy

At PodCamp Toronto yesterday, one of the intriguing sessions was Brad Buset’s presentation about privacy, and how there needs to be more awareness of how much information we’re disclosing via social networks.

It’s an issue that has been lost in the shuffle amid the excitement about sharing what you’re doing, thinking, eating, going, drinking, buying and where you’re located. Everyone is pounding away on their keyboards to broadcast everything and anything without much thought to whether disclosing this information has a downside. In many ways, we’re drunk on social media.

The reality is there’s a dark side to social media that people need to serious start thinking about now. Every tweet, update, video and blog post is micro-chapter of your public profile that anyone can access. Sure, it’s information that is created for friends, family and colleagues but it’s also out there for other people with less virtuous interests.

The appearance of Please Rob Me is probably the best thing to happen to the idea of social media privacy. PRM is a mash-up that taps Foursquare and Twitter to highlight people who have broadcast that they are not home. For break and enter specialists, it’s a great resource.

Buset made a great point when he said that Please Rob Me is just the tip of the ice berg. Using APIs, someone could create a service that would combine updates of your location (Foursquare) with updates of what you’ve bought (Blippy) with updates of what you’re doing (Twitter or Facebook) to create an even better database for B&E specialists.

While this scenarios may seem farfetched, it’s just an example of how your social media information can be harvested and aggregated to provide accurate snapshots of your life. Unfortunately, most people are not thinking about social media privacy. They’re far too happy with the idea of leading transparent lives that can be shared with friends and family.

The problem is the public-private pendulum has swung too far to public. While sharing experiences and ideas is a key part of what makes social media so powerful, people need to think more about what they’re broadcasting and who can see it.

Buset said part of the problem is that social networks have a vested interest in helping people find each other, which means they want to make more information public so that it’s search-able. This explains, he said, why the default settings for Facebook profiles have swung to public from private.

In many respects, the emergence of Foursquare could be the best thing to happen to social media privacy. The willingness to publicly broadcast your location is a major and serious surrender of personal privacy. It’s one thing to broadcast that you need a coffee, you drank too much or think the Olympics are a waste of time; it’s entirely different to tell people where you’re located on a regular basis.

It’s time for privacy to be pushed into the spotlight rather than forced to exist in the shadows. We need to focus on how much information is being broadcast to the world, and how social networking companies are pushing everyone to be public rather than private.

If we surrender our privacy, the way we live our lives is going to be completely different.

Links: For more on Please Rob Me, check out this ReadWriteWeb post.

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  • Mary Emma Allen

    Excellent article, Mark. I'm glad you're continuing to write about this topic. People need to be more aware that what they write online is NOT private and that anyone can harvest the information for good or evil.

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  • Jon Byous

    Yep, you're on it. If people "must" advertise their travel plans, at least add something like:
    – Our retired police officer and his dog "Shep" next door keep a watchful eye on our street.
    – Unannounced visitors: Smile, you're on "Caught in the Act" Cam.
    – Jack will be guarding the house.
    – "You-know-who" will be house-sitting.
    – Rick will be feeding the dobermans.
    – Benny, call 911 if you hear Jaws and Chomper tearing apart a burglar. Specify an ambulance.

  • Paul Hassing

    A well written and thought-provoking piece. Nice one, Mark! Many thanks for the insights. Best regards, P. :)

  • Brad Buset

    Hey Mark – really appreciate the shout out, and thanks for attending and commenting on the session. While I was researching the presentation, there were a few times where I stopped and thought "how can I never have thought about this before". I think we're going to be hearing more about digital privacy, and as I said on Saturday, if we who most use the tools don't help show others the way we are not being very responsible citizens. The presentation is up on the Espresso blog and on Slideshare if anyone want's to check it out.

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  • Mala Bhargava

    I must say, I rather think that the whole landscape of online privacy has insidiously but totally changed while we were out. I think that privacy is in the process of being redefined by social media and sometime in the not too distant future, the lines between private and public will be irrevocably blurred. I think we’ve left the age behind where we think before we let out information about ourselves And it’s probably too late to do so now. Sure, we should think before we open ourselves up to being robbed, but there’s more than that happening. information being used for personalization (more than one may want of it) localization, and more.

    We need to rethink privacy and personal protection in a new way now.

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  • Sara

    Excellent article! Thank you for reminding privacy online is virtually impossible. No matter how “private” you set up your facebook account, for instance, information can be retrieved. Not to mention the recent GPS-location obsession, especially considering phone applications that endlessly ask permission to use your location when sharing data.
    I leave this kind of stuff to those interested in being filmed/tracked down 24/7, as if they were on one of the many reality TV shows. Big Brother docet…
    Thank you Mark, for sharing useful information! (I didn’t know about Please Rob Me)

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  • Identity Theft Info

    People have NO idea how dangerous it is to post when they are NOT going to be home or where they’ll be at any given time.

    They talk about vacation plans, little league schedules, doctors appointments, etc.

    Recently my adult daughter posted a flag football schedule on a social media site. Not only was she revealing when she wouldn’t be home, she was also telling others when I would not be home while I was at the game.

    There’s so much to consider here.

    I’m constantly warning people of the dangers of these practices. It’s fun to be in touch, however, think of such “here’s where I’ll be” information as if you were in a public place.

    You’d never behave like this in a real world crowd. So, why behave like this in a digital crowd.

    If ya wanna tell people where you are use the phone. Much more secure.

    Thanks for the article

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  • Flat Author – T.F.

    Good post, and probably a good presentation…. but haven’t we given up privacy the moment we connectet to the flat world of the Internet….
    I agree, we need to rethink our privacy….a make shure the web is turned into a social web where you own your data!

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