The unexpected dangers of Social Media

Yesterday I was going through some of my feeds when I saw something that made me stop and think for a while. It was an automatic update of Robert Scoble to Friendfeed. Robert turns out to be a Dopplr user and has set up his profile to feed automatically into Friendfeed. On Friendfeed we could read that Robert was returning to Half Moon Bay today.

Dopplr is a social networking service that lets you enter in your traveling schedule and share it privately with friends and colleagues. It then comes with all kinds of social functionalities that allow you, for example, to see if any of the people you know happens to be somewhere at the same time you are.

I’ve looked at Dopplr at an earlier stage but decided it wasn’t for me. But the way Robert used that service made me go back to his personal profile to see what Dopplr does. And it turns out there are (obviously) a lot of details available about his personal traveling schedule.

I feel that this is an example of social media use where having the ability to share anything with anyone reaches a privacy boundary we might not want to cross. There is nothing wrong with the Dopplr service itself (or with Robert for that matter). But when a service that advocates private sharing of personal information provides the user with the ability to share publicly things might get a little tricky. Especially if you are a naive user (Robert isn’t).

The power of social media lies in the ability for users to interact everywhere, any time and over any content thinkable. The tech  community has embraced this ability and shares anything with anyone. Life streaming is the new magic word. Personally I find this concept highly overrated. Let’s face it, a lot of our daily activities aren’t interesting enough to share with the whole world. Our lives or the things we do aren’t the same as lives of famous pop stars. It’s weird to see pop stars wishing that they’d be left alone for a while when they get harassed by press and fans. At the same time the infamous (that would be us) try to get the rest of the world to observe them as if they were pop stars by providing a life stream of things that happen. Sorry guys, we aren’t that interesting and I doubt people will lose a night of sleep over my published life stream (yawn). The real underlying problem with life streams is that the things that get shared are useless as there isn’t intent in sharing. The technology allows us to share anything we want, so we do exactly that. Burying the possibly interesting stuff under a thick blanket of total waist. But I digress.

Having a life stream, connecting your daily steps to the outside world has many advantages. But there are also disadvantages that most are not aware of. I feel that the early adopter community isn’t discussing or exploring the privacy aspects enough. We tend to look at the technical side of things (wow, cool technology), or the functional side (hey, I can now share my traveling plans). But we don’t discuss privacy. Privacy is obviously a painful and difficult subject in relationship to social media. It’s something we leave to the service owner to protect. That is not only naive but completely useless. You can have the best privacy controls implemented in a service like Facebook, but who is protecting me from Facebook? Privacy must be the responsibility of the user. But the sad thing about it is that privacy is held in a death grip by social media, and it’s slowly choking and turning blue.

A Dopplr feed being publicly shared is a good example of this. The advantage of Robert publishing his traveling schedule is that he might be able to hook up with friends during his traveling. But it makes him vulnerable in a perhaps unexpected way. I told him on Friendfeed that if I were a thief, his traveling schedule would provide me with excellent information on his whereabouts. I’d know when he would be home and when not. And I sure would know his house is filled with all kinds of expensive technology (his life stream tells me that). It reminded me of a story on the news a few weeks ago. It turns out that car thieves in the Netherlands had found a very lucrative thieving method. They would go to the long parking area of our national airport and steal expensive cars with integrated car navigation systems. Then they would choose the “home” address on the navigation system and drive to the house of the unaware owners that were obviously on vacation. As a result, not only their expensive car was stolen, but their house was conveniently emptied too.

The information about being home or not is obviously just one example that can have a very unexpected result. We share much more then that. We talk openly about the things we like or not. We talk about people we do or do not like. We are often unaware how much information about ourselves and our thoughts we are sharing publicly. Thirty years ago we would probably need a private detective to find out stuff about other people. Now all we need is to be able to operate Google.

I don’t think sharing information is a bad thing. I do think that current web practices makes people very vulnerable, especially if they do not understand the consequences of their actions, or worse, leave their privacy to be protected by Facebook and the likes. It’s why privacy needs to be controlled by the user himself. This is impossible with current services and that is a dangerous trend. Social media can be more dangerous than you expect.

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18 Responses to The unexpected dangers of Social Media

  1. Tom says:

    Really interesting post Alexander. I am thinking about the use of social media among non-early adopters, and I think this is a key issue for them. There’s a lot of anxiety about what information gets put out onto the web, as most people are only just getting used to the idea that they can enter their real name into facebook, rather than an alias.

    There’s talk about whether prospective employers will be able to look at their profiles and photos, and while facebook has excellent privacy setting control, I know very few ‘normal’ users who have actually gone into it and made a series of informed decisions about who they want to see what, and then configured accordingly.

    I posted a status last year that I was going on holiday, but then removed it quite quickly after a moment’s thought. People know where I live, and that I have lots of cool tech in my home. A simple check would let them know I wasn’t in, and it would be easy to break in and get my stuff. Worrying stuff.

    I do think that social media is inclining our lives into the open, but we need to have a careful think about the implications of certain types of data getting into the public domain. I think your exact whereabouts is one of those pieces of info that could be significantly problematic.

  2. Tom, thanks for dropping by;-)

    There are many area’s in which privacy is under attack from social media. Whereabouts is one obvious one. But how about political choices, religion, who or what do you like/dislike. They all sound like very innocent pieces of information at first glance. But when things are there for eternity, because Google can’t forget, then it becomes potentially information you might not want out in the open. The information itself might even be innocent, but it could still get (mis-)used in unexpected ways (job interviews?).
    Early adopters might understand this (although I doubt they think about it often), but naive Web users do not. they actually think Facebook protects their privacy, which is obviously a crazy thought.

  3. You’re right — people are unnecessarily exposing reams of personal information without thought to personal privacy. Smart crooks could likely use public APIs and personal data in order to schedule and automate thievery. I bet you they are; highly sophisticated crime syndicates are already making billions stealing credit card data. Imagine if they could use APIs to supplement that data with reams of personal information in order to create a robust profile and take over the lives of their targets. Sounds like a Tom Cruise movie script? Title: “Virtual Me”.

    I work with tech entrepreneurs so I try to stay active in social media as a way of informing my personal knowledge and experience. And like it or now, my colleagues and potential business associates are using social media to find out more about me.

    And I’ve known and worked with the guys who dreamed up Dopplr and Jaiku, an excellent microblogging platform.

    It’s true that younger people, who were the early drivers of MySpace and Facebook, probably don’t have privacy on their minds. How publicly posted information will later be used — in college, job and government interviews — remains to be seen.

    Maybe your post is a wake up call. Perhaps, because I found the feed on Twitter.

  4. @Neil I don’t think that I have the distribution power as of yet to provide people a “wake up”call, but I sure hope people will be thinking and discussing the subject more ;-) . There are many implications and right now privacy seems to be fighting a lost war with social media. I don’t think that is right. It is a matter that affects us all and needs to be resolved in some way.

  5. Roel says:

    I completely agree with your article, Alexander. This is something I have been warning friends about for some time. However, it probably requires a significant event connected to the use of social media before the public at large will realize the risks.

    Something I am not convinced about is your assertion that “privacy needs to be controlled by the user himself”. I would love to have that option, and *I* would use it, but 99,99% of all internet users aren’t even remotely interested in privacy.

    Instead, social networks should take responsibility and setup user accounts with sane privacy defaults and transparent options (with clear warnings). Furthermore, they should provide clear information on what they do with your data, and not hide it behind judicial mumbo-jumbo.

    In the future, knowledge of the structure and dynamics of activities in their network should make it possible for social networks to prevent a large percentage of very harmful activity (like certain user accounts actively searching for information on people that are on vacation – with the intention of breaking into their homes, or the like).

  6. @Roel, you are forgetting that most social networks have chosen a business model that creates revenues based upon the data form that user. Asking Facebook to handle privacy for me is asking a wolf to herd sheep. It wouldn’t work. They are not transparent about their commercial intentions, and hide this behind many layers of juridical pages that normal users find hard to comprehend. Even if people aren’t interested in privacy (or simply to naive to understand it’s implications) they should still have the control over it. It takes a lot of explanation, and a leading role by technology adaptors and developers. It is extremely important, but totally not relevant it seems. The problem with this solution is that it needs a user-centric web. Everything important should be implemented within control of the user only. And that goes against all web 2.0 ‘rules of engagement’.

  7. Alexander, great post. This reminds me of when Loic Lemeur, broadcast on Twitter his parking spot # at LAX. Anyone with bad intentions could of stole his car with ease. Most of us are so quick to life stream, we often throw our privacy out the door. This is a very dangerous precedent being set.

  8. Roel says:

    @Alexander, I do understand that social networks (and all other free web services) aren’t actually free: they provide a service in exchange for information about me and my attention span (as I noted here [Dutch]). :-)

    Since I believe a user-centric web is not something we’ll see within a few years, I try to vote with my web attention span for services I ‘trust’ more. So I deleted my Facebook account a couple of months ago.

    Our best bet for a user centric web is currently Weave, a Mozilla Labs project. It continues where Google Browser Sync left of. And it may be the thing to turn Firefox into your personal web information and communication broker. Anyone can setup their own Weave compatible server, where you can store and sync your browsing history, bookmarks, extensons, etc.

    Provide users with the ability to fully control and customize their online experience, including whether and how their data should be shared with their family, their friends, and third-parties

    Give it some time, and the combination of Weave + Firefox + trusted Weave service providers may yet be the development that gives users control over their web life.

  9. I couldn’t agree more. I blogged about the inevitable path of “crime 2.0″ due to lifecasting – reached a few of the same conclusions: http://www.livedigitally.com/2008/05/22/lifecasting-may-well-lead-us-to-crime-20/

  10. sheenonline says:

    I agree that there are privacy issues with Social Media, but I’m not going to live in fear of what will happen.

    Anytime technology advances, new ways to do crime emerge.

    There are people who refuse to buy things online because of identity theft. Is this limiting their quality of life? Probably.

    We could just unplug, lock the doors, and hide under the bed, but that doesn’t sound very fun to me.

    People who don’t know what they’re doing with the technology they have will always figure out a way to screw themselves over. There is no way to make everyone exercise common sense.

    Reasonably default settings are a start, but what defines reasonable and what happens when one of these features that protects me conflicts with my desire to share?

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  12. @Sheen My main point is that right now you aren’t in control of your privacy. If you are, then you can decide for yourself how much of yourself you wish to reveal. That will be different for everyone. But now you simply have 2 options, join in, or isolate yourself from web 2.0.

    @Roel excellent suggestion. I’ve been following this project and that is a good step into the right direction.

    @Jeremy, thanks for the link ;-)

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