About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How safe are social networks?

Mike Gotta, on his Collaborative Thinking blog, discussed a good article available at Knowledge@Wharten addressing the security issues around social networks. As I read through the linked article, I thought of some issues I have not seen addressed as yet.

At the conference, Hoffman illustrated how social connections are made online and the ease with which a stranger can become part of a network. He noted that he is regularly added to mailing lists and invited to become a friend -- or "friended" in the social network parlance -- of businesses that use the sites as a marketing tool. Indeed, pages used by businesses on Facebook were recently redesigned to look more like those of individuals.

The implications for this is mind boggling. This means that marketing representatives or organizations would have access to a person's personal information and preferences. So what's wrong with that? Unless someone has set their facebook privacy on "friends only" thousands of others will have access to your information. For example, my daughter "friended" her favorite local radio station when her status was "friends of friends" could see her data. This means that any radio listener has access to her information. At a minimum, the radio station knows the topics she discusses with her friends, what her interests are, and what she is susceptible to.

On the other hand, as a marketing professor, I also see the strength of this tool as more and more people are resistant to marketing research via phone or person interviews. This is less obtrusive than traditional forms of market research.

Another point made in the article had me thinking of personal responsibility and educating users of social networks:

When a business contact from the LinkedIn world wants to become your friend on Facebook, do you accept the invitation, giving them access to the photos on your Facebook profile from last summer's rowdy beach party?

And what about the person you don't really know who wants to be your friend because you have some friends in common? According to Hoffman, that new friend may just be mining your social circle for information. As networks grow and more friends of friends (and their friends) are accepted by users, it's unclear who can be trusted.

As my kids use facebook, I review who their friends are. Sometimes friends are declined which can be a form of bullying for middle or high schoolers (I don't accept you as a friend). On the other hand, students do need to feel they can decline interaction with anyone on the internet. This is not a new problem. I remember when my son was a toddler, he would speak to anyone. I had to teach him that he could be friendly with anyone, but he needed to keep his distance and never go away with them. My daughter, on the other hand was always very skittish around men especially. I did not want her to be rude, but I wanted her to trust her instincts. The same balance needs to be achieved in using social software.

The article recommends:

Ultimately, social networking security rests with each user of the service (those friend invitations can always be declined). Hoffman recommended that social network denizens know the privacy policies -- governing, among other things, how the information you provide can be used -- of the sites they frequent.

At the same time, Hoffman said, web site operators need to make privacy policies easier to understand. "Privacy policies differ in theory and practice. In theory, consumers know about a site's privacy policy and trust the network. The reality is that no one reads the policies. I don't read them myself." Hoffman cited Facebook's privacy policy -- which promises that users have control over their data and what information is shared -- as typically murky. (The most recent version is more than 3,700 words -- more than twice as long as this article.) Hoffman advocates new formats for privacy policies that act as simplified "nutrition labels," like those on food products.

Vicky Davis
also suggested last year that there be different "friend" categories and different ways to block depending on the friend category (i.e. family, best friends, business friends).

As more and more of my information creates a digital finger print, though, I keep asking myself, "How is this different than what I do face to face?" In fact, before I post anything, I always wonder, is this something I would do in a face to face situation? When my kids are posting things, I will look over their shoulder and ask, "Would you say this out loud in a class?"

In fact, I find most of the youth use texting as their private form of communication and (for the most part) understand the public nature of social networks. Just like they may not be so careful when they are with their friends in a Mall, another public setting, they may not be careful when they are on facebook.

No comments: