Sunday, January 6, 2013

Social Media & Privacy: The Return of the Village

Some of you with connections to the younger folk may have heard of SnapChat. The promise of the application was that it would allow its users to share images that would be deleted within a few seconds of it being transmitted. Another similar app and function is offered by Facebook called Poke. The hope was that, such an app would protect the privacy of the users by maintaining the confidentiality of the messages sent. However, CNET uncovered (based on the blog, BuzzFeed FWD) that it is quite easy to go around the controls:
"an iPhone user simply has to plug the smartphone into a computer, navigate to the phone's internal storage, and find the folders for Snapchat and Poke where the videos are stored locally. The user can then copy the videos from the phone to the computer to sneak a peek at them. In BuzzFeed's testing, this bug applied only to videos; photos didn't appear to show up."

The workaround, if you will, illustrates something that we know that there is always a way around these controls and therefore they offer limited privacy protection at best. The reality is that once something gets online it's out there forever.

I try to make the next generation accounting students aware of the risks during the Masters course I teach at the University of Waterloo by getting them to pull articles on how posting on Facebook can undermine one's career and professional prospects. (here is a blog that compiles social media faux pas that result in one losing one's job). As the then CEO of Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle), Scott McNealy stated (back in 1999), "You have zero privacy anyway.Get over it."

Over the summer, I had some time to think about privacy and social media as I was researching the phenomenon. One the thoughts that struck me was that social media actually represents the "Return of the Village". Being an urbanite myself. I am used to leaving in the city or the burbs where people "mind their business". However, that's not how life is in the traditional village. In the village, everybody knows everybody and word gets around quickly about people's affairs. There, just as in the online world, if you don't want anyone to know something don't tell anyone about it. Consequently, privacy has always been limited in a village context. However, as Jeff Jarvis touts in his book Public Parts, there are benefits to living life publicly. In other words, by living in the "online village" we get the benefits of community that were hard to find living in the more individualistic urban setting. A couple examples that illustrate this concept:

When developing a controls strategy around social it is important to keep the human element at the focus of the strategy. As illustrated by SnapChat, technology-centric controls can be easily circumvented. Furthermore, when considering the risks of employees contributing online it is important to remember that
 it is hard to segment one's professional world in the corporate cubicle with one's personal life. Consequently, governance and controls need to address the personnel rather than relying solely on technological solutions, such as data loss prevention tools. For example, Microsoft relies essentially on its people to police themselves and in order to post things that are in-line with Microsoft's corporate culture. In other words, the techno-centric solutions can supplement governance controls but they don't supplant them. 

In terms of protecting oneself from privacy breaches it requires vigilance. Some totally avoid being a social network for just the reason. That being said such people are in the minority (I poll students annually as to whether they are on Facebook: a handful give it up because it is a waste of time. I've found 1 or 2 people who've given it up for privacy reasons). Other try to mitigate such risks through "social controls". For example, in the Facebook Effect, the author notes how colleges have no cellphone and no camera parties to avoid illegal activities for finding their way online. It may seem like weak control because anyone can sneak a camera into the party. What this misses is really that the control is social in nature: people won't take pictures because they wanted to be invited to the next party!

Ultimately, the real test of social media will be how it is used against people who do not conform to the norm. For example, what would happen if employers discriminate against people who support the Occupy Wall Street movement? If the people go along with such discrimination, the social media essentially becomes a way to ensure conformity in society. Conversely, if it such discrimination is opposed, then it would lead to a more open society as the threat of social sanction (e.g. unable to finding employment) is effectively removed.  

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