Social Networking — today’s technological toy, tomorrow’s privacy nightmare?
It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to new things — you remember the story about the Hollywood studio executive back in the 1930's who famously said “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”.
More recently, the young Beatles were told “Lose the guitars, lads”, and a senior executive at IBM reckoned that five or six mainframes would take care of the world’s data processing requirements.
More recently, people have been dubious about online communications — who want to know what you think about the weather, or what you had for breakfast — and in not more than 140 characters? It’ll never take off.
And yet here we are — tweeting and Twittering like it’s been there forever. We are Facebook-ed, Bebo-ed and Linked-In in case we’d miss something, or in case someone else might miss what we have to say. We like, we poke, we nudge, we tweet. LOL. ROTL, even.
Technology has made it possible to communicate our individual thoughts to a global audience, without the troublesome steps of studying journalism, doing an apprenticeship, getting a by-line and a job with one of those international media groups. Everyone’s a reporter. And a photo-journalist, if you include your camera-phone. Your image, images of your family, your colleagues, the fellow-passengers on your commute to work (www.tubecrush.net) or your “best friends forever” can be captured and posted to a world-wide audience in a matter of seconds, without editing, without much thought, and crucially, without their permission.
Recent stories have been published about quiet, low-key changes to the standard Terms and Conditions of the more popular social networking sites — Sites that will hold on to a copy of your photos, even after you have deleted them from your account; face recognition software has been switched on as a default setting, so that any photo being uploaded can be ‘tagged’ and added to a global portfolio; ‘Friends’ publishing your information in a way that over-rides or undermines your own privacy settings.
The one thing that is missing, aside from a respect for privacy, is a long-term perspective. We post our thoughts, our opinions and our photos on-line as soon as the ideas form in our heads — surely that is the great advantage of today’s communications — they are ‘real time’, ‘as they happen’. However, once posted, that data is going to be out there for a very, very long time. None of the social networking sites have any obligation to delete or remove such material. None make any promise to do so. So when we talk about permanent records, we mean permanent.
I recently spoke with a friend who works for one of the largest financial services organisations in the world. They get hundreds of applications and CV’s every week, and they are able to reject about one quarter on the basis of a quick internet search — inappropriate comments, unprofessional conduct and immature behaviour, published on the web at a time when it seemed like a good idea, comes back to haunt the ‘journalists’ with a vengeance.
So think about that while you’re preparing your next potential Pulitzer, and think once more, just before you hit ‘Post’.
Sytorus is an independent Data Protection Consultancy, based in Dublin, and offers training, consultancy and privacy impact assessment services.