In the past couple of weeks there have been a series of articles raising concerns about the amount of personal data being published to online social networks and the potential for it to be used for ill intent.

There are two different scenarios people should consider before sharing personal information:

  1. Would I mind if a complete stranger knew that information?
  2. Do I mind what any of my ‘friends’ do with the information?

If the answer is Yes to either question think twice before putting that personal information online at all. That’s not to say sharing is inherently good or bad. But once you have shared information with anyone, you have lost control of it. If you answered ‘No’ to question two above, you answered ‘No’ to both.

Social Network Connections

Here is a simple scenario using Facebook. In the image above, the green buddy is you. The blue buddies are your ‘friends’. The red buddies represent everyone else with Internet access.

You set up your privacy settings so that only friends can see your personal information. Anyone who is on Facebook but not a friend will only see your name, nothing else. That’s your decision.  Sounds sensible. Sounds under control.

But if one of your friends decides to share information with their friends or third party applications, they may handover your personal information as well. It can be done in complete innocence and for good intentions – ‘I want to send birthday cards to my friends’, ‘Are any of my friends nearby to meet up with?’, ‘I’m interested in this group, I’ll add my friends to it as well’, ‘Has anybody in my network bought this <insert name of any item>?’ In the right context, all great stuff. But information about you has now been handed over to and stored somewhere beyond your control. The same applies to every application or web site that you allow to connect to your Facebook profile. Do you read all the terms and conditions, the notes about agreeing to data being stored indefinitely or granting access to other third parties?

It is not just you who decides how secure your personal information is. If you decide to share it with them, all your friends get to decide too. As do all the apps and web sites you connect to. And if you’re one of Facebook’s social butterflies, everyone gets to decide.

This doesn’t mean you should head straight to Facebook and switch everything off (too late for existing content anyway) but if you are going to participate in online social networks and care about what happens to your personal data, it’s a good idea to keep track of privacy settings and changes to policies.

If you’re not paying for a product, you’re not the customer, you are the product being sold. – Andrew Lewis

For Facebook and every application/advertising tool that uses it, it is in their best interests to get you to share your personal information. They will make it as easy and seamless to do as possible. And many will make it difficult or inconvenient to change those default settings to be more private. So think long and hard about what you want to share with anyone. And question whether having different privacy policies for everyone versus ‘friends’ actually means anything. A simpler (and more reliable) approach is to either share something with nobody or share with everybody.

A hassle, yes. But massive online social networks are still a young concept on the Internet meaning lessons will be learned the hard way. And everyone with a Facebook account can count themselves as one of the testers.


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