If you are reading this you are a web user and therefore you should be aware of the possible risks associated with Internet use. In the same way that if you visit a city you should be aware of how to behave and which places to keep away from, you need to take a similar approach online.
In recent months there have been many reports of user privacy updates and security breaches that could well mean that personal information about you is sitting in the hands of criminals.
The most recent change to the way the Internet is managed was implemented by Facebook. They have recently updated their privacy agreements to allow them to use the personal data of its members to help promote its own products. It also passes personal information on to third parties (i.e. people that want to sell you stuff). What does this actually mean? Well, one thing that Facebook now do is create links out of your personal information and link to pages that you do not authorize.
OK, so you can ask them not to surely? Yes, you can, but if you do, rather than delete the link, they delete the information. So if you say on your personal profile that you love eating cheese burgers, Facebook can create a link to a popular fast food chain. You may not want to be seen as personally endorsing a fast food chain, so the only option is to remove the fact that you like cheeseburgers. Often the links are simply wrong, such as linking to the wrong schools or organizations – it seems harmless at first, but if a potential employer checks your profile and thinks that you were lying on your CV, you are out of a job.
If your partner thinks you are lying, it could be the end of a relationship. So much for social networking, Facebook is becoming more like relationship wrecking. Facebook call it “Instant personalization”, which is ironic as the user has no control over their own “personalization” on their user profile. There was a time in social networking when a user profile page was the place for a user to tell the world a bit about themselves. Not any more.
You may be thinking, if this is such a big problem then people would be taking action. Well, they are. In the USA four retired senators have made a stand and petitioned Facebook to reverse the recent changes. Loiuse Gray (Managing Director, New Media at Paladin Advisors Group) has Buzzed about this too. Matt Cutts, Google’s anti-spam manager, has also deleted his Facebook account in protest (and for personal safety). He announced it on Twitter and the story appeared on Search Engine Land.
Kim Kraus, one of the web’s most respected usability and SEO experts explains in greater details exactly what Facebook did to her personal information. She raised this in Cre8asiteforums which was the first time much of the community started to learn about what was happening.
Of course, if you decide to also delete your Facebook account you will quickly realise that it is not an easy task. Facebook allow you to “deactivate” your account, which means that you no longer have access to it. But Facebook still have all of your personal data, and can continue to sell that to anyone they like. They can even use your profile to link to whatever they want. And once you have deactivated, you lose all control. So be careful. A better option is to increase your privacy settings so that your profile does not appear on search, that only friends can see your information, and to remove any personal content that you would not want a stranger accessing and distributing at anytime in your future. Remember, the data stored on Facebook’s servers could remain there for decades and you will have not control over it.
This could not be more different from Google’s approach. Google’s motto is “Do No Evil” and they do try to live by that. They have had some mishaps recently with the major privacy issues on the Gmail Buzz launch (anyone could see who the friends of their friends were, including ex-girlfriends, enemies etc. etc.) and there was some panic when their systems were hacked by the Chinese who were spying on people involved in Chinese human rights issues. But they do have the most professional and safest attitude towards personal data to the extent that they have even got an official name for it – Data Liberation. They provide this simple explanation:
“Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google’s products. Our team’s goal is to make it easier to move data in and out.”
Data Liberation simply means that any data that you input into Google should be freely available to you to transfer into other systems or delete completely. For example, if you create a Google Spreadsheet, you should be able to transfer all the information to a desktop application and then delete it from Google, leaving no trace. So confidential information can be removed and you can sleep soundly knowing that those pesky hackers from overseas will not find out all your personal information. Before all you Google Bashers start typing your keywords and URL’s into the comment fields below, note that Google do also state that:
“We don’t think that our products are perfect yet, but we’re continuing to work at making it easier to get your data in and out of them. Visit our Google Moderator page to vote on and add suggestions on what you’d like to see liberated and why.”
So they recognise that they have more work to do, and provide users with updated information and a means to raise concerns. It is this level of transparency that really puts Google in a league of its own when it comes to personal data.
So, what about security and safety? Well, this is all about security and safety. It is extremely important that you keep your personal data, your likes, habits, names of your children, address etc. all under lock and key. As one Internet security expert recently said to me, it is not the known risks that you should worry about the most, it is the unknown risks. With the ever increasing prevalence of “I like this” buttons and other ways to “vote” up a website, you could find yourself in trouble quite easily. For example – you read an interesting blog on Internet security and click the “I like this” button. It them flags up your profile to the World. People will disagree with you, and some of these may be very radical in their views. You have just told them all that you do not agree with them and provided a route to your personal information. Do you feel safe now?
What of your future? Well, this simply refers to the fact that once your information is online with some companies you lose control of it. It could resurface in many years time in the most unexpected places. Be careful with your personal data. Only share it with those you trust totally.