Published in the summer 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine
A few months ago, the issue of user privacy was thrust into the spotlight when burgeoning social photography app Path apologized to its users for uploading and storing users’ phone contacts to the company’s servers. Was this a breach of privacy? And what does privacy mean in today’s world of social everything?
There is truly an app for everything today. Most all of them have some social component, whether it be connecting you to Facebook or Twitter to brag about your high score or simply connecting you to other users of the app. Social networking has truly taken over our conscience. TV shows are beginning to use Twitter heavily to converse with those who are watching the show across the globe. More often than not if you want to win a car being given away by a particular company, you have to “like” their Facebook page to be eligible to win.
So, as we willingly take on a more active role in the various social networks we subscribe to, are we automatically giving up our privacy? Common sense says when you tell people your business, what you’re listening to, what shows you watch, where you’re going, who you like and dislike, your life is far less private than someone who doesn’t express those opinions. But, it’s not so black and white.
Should information not voluntarily given by the user be used or accessed by an application without the user’s knowledge? Most people would say no. However, it’s surprising how often it happens, and we’re totally OK with it.
Have you ever noticed that you always get advertisements for companies or products whose websites you’ve visited recently? That’s targeted advertising at work. Spyware on your phone or computer knows what sites you’ve visited recently and displays advertisements for those companies or similar ones in hopes of gaining your business. Facebook uses similar tactics to give you “friend” suggestions, as does Twitter when it suggests who to “follow.” It’s all part of companies looking at what we do and who we know so they can provide us with better service and advertising. This is similar to someone approaching you in a grocery store, looking at what’s in your cart and then suggesting similar or complementary items.
It’s important to note the difference between accessing and copying. If a grocery store wants to make suggestions based on what’s in my cart, that’s fine with me. Thanks for the help—I almost forgot the toothpaste. If a grocery store wants to keep a record of everything I’ve purchased, though, that’s completely different, and this is common practice for app developers.
Popular blogger Dustin Curtis is quick to point out just how rampant the issue is.
“I did a quick survey of 15 developers of popular iOS apps, and 13 of them told me they have a contacts database with millions of records. One company’s database has Mark Zuckerberg’s cell phone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gate’s cell phone number. This data is not meant to be public, and people have an expectation of privacy with respect to their contacts.” —dcurt.is/stealing-your-address-book.
So what can you do about protecting your privacy? First and foremost, whether you use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google +, FourSquare, Instagram or any of the hundreds of other social media networks out there, pay attention to those popups that appear when you first register. So often we are quick to click YES or OK without reading what is being asked of us. Second, take a quick moment to review the privacy policies of the social network of your choice, such as Facebook’s data usage policy:
“For example, one of your friends might want to use a music application that allows them to see what their friends are listening to. To get the full benefit of that application, your friend would want to give the application her friend list — which includes your User ID — so the application knows which of her friends is also using it. Your friend might also want to share the music you “like” on Facebook. If you have made that information public, then the application can access it just like anyone else. But if you’ve shared your likes with just your friends, the application could ask your friend for permission to share them.”
What does that bolded section mean? It means even if you set your information to private, your friends can still make it public, without your knowledge or permission.