The news about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program has given people valid reasons to worry about possible overreach by U.S. federal authorities. Given the scope of tracking and the fact that a million-square-foot facility is being built in Utah to store the data, it’s no surprise that a number of privacy advocates are up-in-arms about the possible abuses that may result from such monitoring.
With this in mind, many social media users are wondering about
consequences of their sharing and if such information is secure within
the company’s servers. Moreover, the growing paranoia associated with
online tracking has many users reconsidering the possible abuses by a
corporate entity, and how marketing companies will use and spread such
If you manage the social media strategy at your company, you might
get questions about social snooping and the NSA’s program. The more you
know about this topic, the better prepared you will be to address any
grievances users may have.
Two different worlds: Public vs. private
Google and Facebook servers are private and protected. Google and Facebook have denied giving the NSA “direct access” to the information within their servers, though that conflicts with new information. It has been reported that Twitter is not on the list of tech companies that are participating in PRISM. That said, the Patriot Act
allows federal authorities to obtain whatever information is needed in
order to enforce Homeland Security; this leaves an open door for
unsolicited tracking and possible exploitation. There are steps one can
take to prevent such abuses, but given the scope of online sharing, the steps are extreme.
Even though the servers are private, users are asking questions about
the information being tracked and recorded by social media companies.
The process to collect such information is proprietary; each company
owns the information. For Facebook, posts and “Likes” are tracked so ads
can be tailored to the user’s interests. For Twitter, widgets and
buttons are used to track online movement,
which assists the network with “who to follow” suggestions. (If two
people have similar web searches, the company assumes they must have
something to share with each other.) These tactics are designed to make
the user experience personal. For Google, this is done on a macro scale
and for the same reasons. Tools exist to limit private industry’s ability to track, but they are not totally effective.
Enterprise companies collect information to improve user experience;
federal agencies collect information to protect the user. Private
industry is checked by the federal hand if and when the information is
abused. Under the Patriot Act, federal agencies are checked by nothing,
hence users’ concerns. These two worlds are different and should be held
to different standards.
Social is the transparent purse
Years ago, an FBI agent came to my college for recruiting purposes.
During his presentation, someone asked about unlawful searches and
seizures. The agent answered the question fully, and added a caveat to
his answer by stipulating that if a person has a transparent purse that
shows drugs or illegal weapons, the law enforcement official has the
right to investigate.
The information shared in social is subject to similar scrutiny. As
concerns over sharing and snooping grow, the obvious solution is not to
share anything that could be called into question or be suspicious, even
if it’s a joke. If users post something on social that is illegal (such
as a physical threat or an admission of a criminal act), they have no
one to blame but themselves if there are legal repercussions. Basically,
users need to be discerning about what they post on social media
sites. With great power comes great responsibility, and in the digital
age where everything that is posted online still exists (even if it has
been deleted), this is truer than ever.
Social networking contributes to a personalized online experience
because of the tracking already specified. Without it, the information
that we would garner from online searches, social engagements, and
connections would be random and difficult to navigate. Brands exist to
solve problems; if the brand doesn’t know what the problem is (through
tracking), it can’t engage the user who has the problem.
If there are concerns about online tracking, whether it’s from
federal or private sources, I think the fault must fall with those who
readily supply the information being tracked: the user. Weigh in on this
discussion in the comments section.