I wrote earlier this month about the fascinating relationship many social networks have with their users. Whilst many services are free, the flip side is that sites sell the huge volume of data we give them to advertisers. Facebook sell our social data, Amazon sell our commercial data, and so on. The whole relationship is typified by the cartoon below.
So what’s the answer? Well that very much depends on how you feel about your data being sold in this way, and indeed what kind of data you disclose. A senior government security official has stoked the fires today by suggesting that people should sign up to social sites using fake data in order to protect their security.
The comments come from Andy Smith, an internet security chief at the Cabinet Office. He suggests that you should only give your real details to trusted sites, such as official government ones.
“When you put information on the internet do not use your real name, your real date of birth,” he told a Parliament and the Internet Conference in Portcullis House, Westminster.
“When you are putting information on social networking sites don’t put real combinations of information, because it can be used against you.”
Simon Milner, Facebook’s head of policy in the UK and Ireland, said he will be talking with Smith to try and get him to change his point of view.
It seems that the issue boils down to two distinct issues.
Personal branding vs Online security
Suffice to say there are distinct branding benefits of putting yourself out there online. You want to ensure that when people Google your name that they find things that represent you in a positive light. Are there risks involved with ensuring that is the case though? Personally I don’t think so. You control what information is published about you online. Privacy settings are such that you don’t have to show things like your date of birth to the public if you don’t want, and the degree of personal disclosure is your perogative.
You can certainly build an excellent personal brand without posting intimate details about yourself on Facebook or Twitter. To an extent I can sympathise with Smith’s point of view in that it is strange (to me) just how much people do share online, but there’s no demand from social sites for you to be so open with the content you give them. Whilst identity theft is an issue, I don’t think we need to go as far as using fake IDs when interacting with social sites. There are plenty of more sensible approaches you can take to preserve your privacy without resorting to that kind of approach.
Keeping communities free and safe
There is also the question of how an army of fakes would impact upon the social sites we so enjoy. The obvious drawback is that advertisers would be much less keen on buying data that they cannot rely on to be accurate. If they’re not willing to pay to advertise on sites, it’s pretty likely that such sites will not remain free for very long. If we want to continue enjoying free services then we need to understand the bargaining agreement we’re entering into.
There is also of course the legal approach to things. Using anonymous usernames has been a factor of the web for decades, but with the rise of social networks things have entered the mainstream in a big way. With such popularity comes the risk of negative content being posted. There have been numerous instances recently of people being prosecuted for what they post online. Suffice to say that if people are using fake details, such prosecutions become much harder to make. If we want to keep our communities safe it certainly helps to know we have the law on our side.
What do you think of Smith’s opinion? How much information do you share online?