What NSA's PRISM means for social media users

The PRISM program brings an important point about social media use to the forefront: be discerning about what you post online.

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 information.

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.

By Joseph Parker

Joseph Parker has worked in management, supply chain metrics, and business/marketing strategy with small and large businesses for more than 10 years. His experience in development is personal, stemming from his work in mobile marketing and applicatio...