The privacy cost of social networking

June 25th, 2010

Consumer and corporate  exposure to cyberattacks spreading via Facebook and other popular social networks have reached the point where federal regulators this week stepped in to mandate that Twitter take privacy and security much more seriously.  In this LastWatchdog guest post Karl Volkman, Chief Technical Officer of SRV Networks,  outlines how  emerging  privacy concerns make  Facebook — the granddaddy of social nets, with 500 million users –  risky. SRV supplies managed IT services to small- and medium-sized businesses.

By Karl Volkman

Facebook has revolutionized the way we connect as a society. From guerilla marketing to romance to networking, Facebook has something for everyone.

However, some say all this interaction and entertainment comes with a hefty price tag—your privacy. We all know that there is no such thing as the ‘delete’ button on the Internet, yet even the most cyber-savvy individual might not realize how extensive Facebook’s reach is. Popular games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars all retrieve and store personal information about you and your Internet habits, as do surveys and quizzes. Third-party cyber sites who host these modalities use this information to their own benefit, selling information to advertisers and putting you at risk of viruses and scams. Even something as simple as “liking” a friend’s status or link can be stored in the system and later harm you.

Recent news coverage of this loss of cyber privacy has made many people more careful about what they post on these sites. Additionally, we have all become more wary of the statues and photos we post after hearing so many stories of people who have lost jobs or been expelled from school as a result of dubious activities that were posted on Facebook. This extra caution is good, but it doesn’t completely protect you. Just because you aren’t Facebook friends with your employer or you don’t post pictures of a particularly rowdy Friday night does not mean that your information is being kept under lock-and-key.

Facebook owns the information we post on their site, whether it is your birthday, your favorite T.V. show, your address, or even your marital status. They can use this information how they see fit (which explains why you might start seeing online ads for ‘Destination Weddings’ after you posting a picture of your engagement ring on Facebook, or why online ads catering to ‘Freelance Employment Opportunities’ begin to pop up after you lament being laid off on a Facebook status).

Despite these occasionally disturbing breaches of privacy, Facebook still has over 500 million users, and that number is constantly growing. Some believe that the social network might even overtake cyber giant Google in popularity. However, this isn’t likely. Google has way too many elements which attract customers to be rivaled by Facebook which is relatively one-dimensional. Facebook’s popularity cannot be denied and any site that has presence will have advertisers flocking to promote their wares, but Google is multifaceted. Most current patrons will not abandon them.

As far as Facebook patrons go, some might even argue that this lack of privacy brings a few benefits. For one thing, we have a plethora of information at our fingertips, and finding loved ones or reconnecting with old friends has never been easier.

Hopefully, this climate of hyper-public postings and overexposure could be nearing its demise. As in most cases, the pendulum of change sways to the extremes before it settles into a more sensible position. Prior to the Internet, privacy was high and information was scarce. With the advent of email, IM, and social networking, we have tons of information but almost no privacy.

However, now that we are all seeing the consequences of too much revelation, most users will become more reticent and sensibility will win out at some point. Those who have grown up on the Internet will become tired and impatient of the privacy abuses and then society will demand stricter regulations. Unfortunately, as a whole, we need to get burned several times before we decide that the fire of loose information is too hot. Until then, post, friend, and like at your own risk!

About the author:

Karl Volkman is an expert in UNIX, NT, Netware Operating Systems, Local Area Network and Wide Area Network Environments, Network Design, Implementation and troubleshooting. Karl has a B.A. in Computational Mathematics from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He has 27 years of technical and managerial experience including Unix systems administration, database administration on Sybase, Oracle, Microsoft SQL, Access and Paradox. Karl is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Partner with Internet, Microsoft Certified Database Administrator, and a Certified Hewlett Packard Unix Systems Administrator.