Friday, June 15, 2012

Fear and Hope: Social Media Networks and our Personal Data

A recent survey by Avira, a software security firm, found that 84% of those surveyed worry their participation in social media will lead to their personal data being misused or stolen. The study found that the largest social network of all, Facebook, was distrusted more than any other major network. People fear how social networks will violate their privacy or misuse their personal data. People fear many types of misuse and potential negative ramifications of this misuse, misallocation, or exposure. But their ultimate fears drive their initial distrust of social media.

A person’s ultimate fear could be as simple as being embarrassed or as extreme as being a victim of a home invasion or worse. Ultimate fears could include:


Sexual or thieving predators crawl social networks. Social networks provide ample prey in a very exposed environment. Sexual predators seek out potential victims based on the attributes a user posts as well as the nature of their comments. If a user indicates some sense of emotional vulnerability, a sexual predator could use this to engage their prey. Thieves can search out timing of posts such as a recurring appointment or even a vacation mention and with some other geographic information in a person’s profile, they can figure out where a person lives and the potential robbery payoff. As reported here, a simple Facebook status update can get you burgled.


While employers are beginning to battle the conundrum of private life versus work life on a new front in social media, users are finding that they may post to their own detriment should then not censor their posts in social media. Some employers have begun to ask for job applicants’ social media credentials and doing the same for those already hired or slated for promotions. People fear their employers will find embarrassing or deleterious information in their social media presences, and rightfully so because employers are looking and seeking out information that may be harmful to the company such as exposed company information or just association with an employee who engages in activities harmful to the company’s reputation.

Education Expulsions

Educational institutions, like many companies, engage in social media surveillance of their members. They also desire to keep the image of their organization in a positive light. But members, again, understandably fear that the social media in which they engage will not protect them from this type of intrusion. Students fear they will be expelled or at least reprimanded for their online activities.

Reputation Damage

In a social media user’s circle of friends and associates, they typically have a reputation they desire to foster and maintain or potentially achieve. But, they may fear that things contradictory to that reputation could show up in social media either outside of their control like another user posting a video. They may fear that a reputation they have in one circle of friends will not be compatible with the reputation they have with another group. They fear that the overlap in their social media between these circles or groups may damage one, both, or all of their reputations.


The government is watching you. Some people fear the government intrusion into their online lives. They fear the government is profiling them with the prospect of using the profiles to direct or damage their lives at some point in the future. Many people would dismiss this notion as conspiracy minded but as reported here, the government actively, unprovoked, and without warrants profiles people on a vast scale.

Harassment and Bullying

One of the most widely reported types of data misuse via social networks is harassment or bullying. People fear they will post something and it will be used against them as a point of harassment. Or they may fear that at some point a person or group opposed to something they stand for will bully them. Like reported here, people do bully others via social media and, in the worst cases, some bullying victims have even committed suicide.

All of these fears are quite valid. The anecdotal evidence provides a substantial amount of support for the potential that people could become victims of the misuse of their information in social networks. But, how does this happen? Almost every case supporting the fears above involves information the victim provided to the social network that the perpetrator then used against the victim. The victim had no intention of providing the information to the perpetrator. The victim was either trusting or discounting the likelihood of becoming a victim. In the end information one person shared was passed to another who should not have gotten that information.

Most social media networks by the nature of their software applications, privacy policies, default settings and usage agreements fault the user. The social media networks deliver all the tools a user could need to protect themselves, right? This is certainly the case since they all provide a way to discontinue accounts. The second most effective way a user can protect themselves is by discontinuing their membership. Abstaining from social media is the most effective way a person can protect themselves.

Information passes from a user to an unintended recipient in many ways. From phishing to search engine spidering to information shared by one user is shared by another whose friends then read that information still attributed to the original sharing user. Small bits of information like geographic mentions by a user can be combined with other data from other sources like public records or a user’s friends posts to compile a more complete profile than a user actually publishes online. Every bit of information a user posts is a clue to follow to more information about that user. For example, if I was to post, “The boys of summer are coming back to my home town for spring training,” then you might easily surmise I live in Phoenix, Arizona. Then maybe someone posts on my wall that our thirty-year high school anniversary is coming up and if they could stay with me during the event. Another user could look in public records to find out what high schools were in existence thirty years ago in Phoenix and find out that there was only one. Without me really telling this other user, they now know I live in Phoenix. They know the year I graduated high school and what year I graduated. From there they have my name and they can find out what house I own in Phoenix. Now, you can assume any nefarious intentions you wish.

But, most of us want to engage with our friends via social media. We set aside our fears, engage, and temper our exposure. But, we still know deep down that we are exposing ourselves to many more people. And in turn, potentially exposing ourselves to many more people who would do us harm. Most just hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment