Following the launch of member-driven sites like SixDegrees.com in 1997, social media has permanently changed how people around the globe communicate with each other—a trend continuing to accelerate at fibre optic speeds. It’s an unprecedented shift, far eclipsing the comparatively glacial impact after William Caxton’s historic introduction of England’s first printing press in 1476.
But like a gigantic iceberg, lurking below the surface of instant social gratification are serious privacy, content ownership and security challenges. At its pernicious extreme, surreptitious capturing of personal data and behavior tracking via advanced technologies violate basic human rights.
No Privacy Anywhere, Anytime
But what’s not stated is that Facebook enforces the practice of opt-out privacy which could require unchecking a box which is an easily overlooked task.
Other online privacy policies echo the power imbalance enjoyed by social media providers. For example, Symantec’s online privacy statement does a reasonable job of listing contact, payment and IP address data required for platform membership. Here’s the weasel-worded catch: Symantec reserves the right to unilaterally replace all components of its privacy statement at any time by simply posting a change notice. The onus rests with members to continually check for policy revisions potentially robbing them of all privacy rights (unless formal notification or opt out is required by law).
This in turn opens a whole other can of worms surrounding which legal jurisdiction governs.
From Content Owners to Social Media Slaves
In January 2014, pop music legend Prince initiated million-dollar lawsuits against 22 enthusiasts who created fan pages on Facebook and Blogger that linked to torrent sites offering bootlegged Prince concert downloads. Ownership of content posted on social media has grown even more contentious since then, particularly for any item disseminated on Google Plus.
ZDNet columnist Michael Krigsman points to Google’s terms of service giving “… Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit …” as a declaration that you become, as Prince might say, a slave content provider. It’s scary to think how Google might manipulate posted content after submission thus compromising company reputations and potential ruining people’s lives. Risks of having social media content manipulated or hijacked can handicap people’s ability to profit from their own work and, as a result, infringe on intellectual freedom, creativity and innovation.
Litigating the world’s 39th largest corporation can be excruciatingly painful, with dubious chances for average citizens to win a positive settlement.
Social Media Insecurity
Another frightening scenario is that facial and fingerprint images extracted from posted photos would be considered the property of Google which, theoretically, could compromise ownership of one’s identity. This is not a far-fetched science fiction scenario when you consider that 3D printing (now available at George Brown’s St. James Campus library) allows students to generate realistic photo-based face masks and fingerprinted gloves from a graphics file.
Even email addresses carry risks far beyond their perceived role as basic contact information. George Brown instructor Stephen Harris explains that email addresses are unique identifiers used for both social media profiles and online banking records . When combined with geographic data, email addresses become powerful sources for identity thieves and stalkers to harvest.
This is not to suggest that all audience members are unaware or delusional about digital dangers: a 2016 Statistica survey found that 96% of American internet users fear online hackers. Yet some researchers argue that social media changes user brain chemistry, psychologically addicting people to dopamine highs from communicating about themselves in real-time while blinding them to security risks much like how cigarette smokers crave nicotine hits while mentally blocking out the deadly dangers from inhaled smoke.
Corporate/Government Interests Trump Privacy
Statistica’s study also found that: 43% of Americans think social media listening is an intrusion on their privacy; 51% want to talk about companies on social media without companies listening; and 58% want company activities restricted to servicing complaints. Yet many employers have strict codes of conduct which shackle their employees’ freedom of speech; for instance some forbid employees from liking or recommending on business-to-business platform LinkedIn.
Krigsman does concede that life is more complicated for enterprises online, and that social media should not become a private repository for corporate intellectual property. Instead, he advises businesses to remind their employees to use social media platforms like Google Plus as a general-purpose communication tool “… only when privacy and security don’t matter.”
Digital coach and consultant Courtney Hunt further explains that each individual “owns” their own profile. While s/he is employed by a specific organization, however, the employer has a right to dictate what gets included in a “personal” profile. Those requirements must be limited to the individual’s current employment. To facilitate this ideal, Hunt says employers should provide all employees with clear social media guidelines defining how they should represent themselves, the organization and their jobs.
Government surveillance of social media activity is another concern. The award-winning documentary Citizenfour shows how nightmarish digital tracking has become post-9/11. Whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals that governments are aggressively spying not only on the metadata describing communication attributes but are actively collecting the actual content regardless of how sensitive. Key takeaways from the documentary include the need for encryption for matters involving freedom of speech in general and more specifically the ability of journalists to disseminate unfettered reports to the general public.
Communication via social media is primarily unencrypted, making users vulnerable to “Big Brother” abuses of power. Worse, cybercriminals located around the globe can easily track an individual’s online footprint and behavior.
Lessons Learned: Get Careful Busy
Individuals must take continuous, 24/7 responsibility to protect the privacy and security of their personal profiles. They must also carefully pre-filter any content shared in the social media ecosystem—just as they would with their driver’s licence, social insurance number and credit cards. There are few easy answers and much uncharted territory.
Here is one roadmap on who to engineer a safer experience on social media based on the skillful use of metrics.
1. Set S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-based) Goals for social activities.
2. Define a clear social media strategy before implementing tactics.
3. Ensure my strategy answers why I’m even engaging on social media in the first place (while consistently matching S.M.A.R.T. goals criteria).
4. Carefully map out tactics ensuring how I create and distribute content fits my strategy. Tactics arise from thoughtfully considering: What social media platforms are going to be used? How often are we going to publish? What is the best medium to use? Who will create the content (and does outsourcing blog article writing make sense given risks of plagiarism?)
5. Become educated on how to skillfully use metrics as the basis for all social media projects.
As H. James Harrington says:
“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, then you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”
6. Don’t say anything online you wouldn’t want plastered on a billboard with your face on it.
Digital Trends, History of the Web
Undercover Recruiter Infographic: How Social Media is an Online Privacy Risk for You
Danny Brown: Why Seth Godin Misses the Mark on Facebook and Privacy
The 1709 Blog: Prince Sues Twenty Two Fans For Linking To Infringing Content
Michael Krigsman: Google Plus: Is privacy an issue?
Forbes: The World’s Biggest Public Companies
Social Media Metrics and Email Campaigns, Class 1 YouTube video (31:15)
Statistica The Statistics Portal: Statistics and facts about online privacy
asapScience: 5 Crazy Ways Social Media Is Changing Your Brain Right Now
Michael Krigsman: Google Plus: Is privacy an issue?
Courtney Hunt: Social Media “Data” Ownership: Recommendations for Employers
Duncan Haughey: SMART GOALS
H. James Harrington: Goodreads Quotable Quotes
Erin Bury, per Silvia Pencak: Top 50 Social Media Quotes