Is privacy dead, or merely snoozing?

Last week Thomas Roessler (@roessler) posted a blog post on the efforts of w3c to define a “do not track” standard {worth a read} which is designed to protect users from being tracked without their permission. And that got me thinking — not a good thing I know :-) — about user data & permissions in general.

The ability to allow users to control how their data is being used will be critically important for the future of the social web and is something that needs to be addressed before we can realize the true potential of social computing. People need to know:

  • What data (social & non-social, Internet & Intranet) is being syphoned off?
    [Tweets, blog posts or comments, forums, click-throughs, e-mails, meeting minutes] 
  • How its being used?
    [Content redistributed, analyzed & derived data redistributed]
  • What insights are being derived from it?
    [Topic interests, social profiles, social networks, affiliations, sentiment, opinion]
  • How those insights will be used?
    [Targeted marketing, law enforcement, credit ratings, recruitment, expertise location, employee performance]

Without the ability to provide very precise levels of transparency I believe social analytics has the risk of being crippled. {And here I am talking about both Internet and Intranet scenarios which both face similar, abeit slightly differently worded, challenges}

Last week I wrote a blog post titled “Copyright! Do we want our cake and eat it too?” where I raised the thorny subject of copyright infringement of freely available web content. Anyone who had ever applied content analytics to web content, has likely run into a heated conversation with their legal dept on this very subject. The response from our understandably cautious legal profession is generally a variation of No!

For consuming content we need the ability to apply granular controls — from source (website, blog, file-system) down to document (web page, blog post, twitter conversation, e-mail thread) or paragraph (blog comment, e-mail, tweet). And these controls also need to inform how the content can subsequently be used — what insights are derived, how will they be used, and who owns them? Ownership being possibly one of the more interesting questions; as per recent scuffles between Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook (who claim they own your data and don’t want to let you export it anywhere) with Google+ (who is taking the opposite position).

We need this level of transparency and control if we don’t want people to just turn off all or part-of the social hose-pipe. Its simple risk/reward. For example; John may be happy to share his social data for special offers or improved search, but not for financial or insurance evaluations.

This is a similar challenge with enterprise data, where you may in fact never want (or be allowed) to share certain data with the broader organization (customer emails, for example), but may be happy to share some derived insights (I am working with an automotive client) in order to get better content or people recommendations to help you close that big opportunity.

Its a tricky problem to solve, and one which requires content and social media providers, technology vendors, standards bodies, and lawyers, to get around the table. However if we don’t solve this we are going to be faced with a quagmire that will bury social innovation. Of that I am sure…

And on that happy note I sign off :)

8 Responses to “Is privacy dead, or merely snoozing?”

  1. Fruit for thought. Being social does not mean throw caution to the wind. Often knowing who can view or leverage the content and insights is why people is willing to share useful information.


    • I would definitely agree that in most cases people are happy to share content if they see the overall benefits of doing so and feel that they have some level of control on what is being shared and how its being used. The industry just needs better standardized mechanisms to ensure that its clear when something is shared and under what conditions, such as Copyright.

      With derived insights I suspect its a bit trickier, since in that case the person may not even know what insight they have just shared. It might be as harmless as “I love coffee” or as personal as “I live beside the Starbucks on Main St.”. Plus they may also inadvertently expose insights about other unsuspecting people in their social network.

      My sense is that if the industry can nail down a set of standard approaches for maintaining the appropriate levels of user privacy controls & transparency, then the sky is the limit in terms of what we can realize through the responsible application social software.



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