Today, NPR announced the White House will seek legislation requiring email systems and social networks comply with standards that will allow government officials access to all your social network: your Tweets, Check-Ins, Status Updates, Flickr photos, etc (under a subpoena, of course) the beginning of next year.
It’s one thing when the government subpoenas your Foursquare check-ins to show you were in the vicinity of a crime or your email when you bragged about stealing from your boss. Or for your boss to subpoena photos of you building a fence after filing a worker’s comp lawsuit for an injured back. But, the potential for abuse is enormous. Already, subpoenas have been abused in civil cases where attorneys invaded a plaintiff’s social network and shared embarrassing personal information unrelated to the case.
Privacy on your social network
According to the brief new story on All Things Considered this morning, the White House wants greater subpoena powers. They want access to encrypted messages from your mobile devices and other encrypted sources, including emails, and they want easy access to these files through a portal or other standard device.
Now, the story didn’t contain a lot of details and I’m not a computer geek — I’m a marketing geek who writes on technology. But, it seems to me that once it’s easier for the government to access your private social network, how long will it be before they do some serious eavesdropping without a subpoena searching for “potential terrorist” activity and enact Patriot Act type legislation to allow access to your social network WITHOUT a subpoena. Moreover, how will the government protect information obtained under the subpoena from illegitimate use by hackers or unscrupulous employees with legitimate access to the information?
Privacy dangers impact behavior
Now, normally I use this blog to address issues at the intersection of marketing and social media, but the potential for abuse of this increased access to information from your private social network is enormous and raises some serious questions.
- For instance, will this improved access to our social networks make it easier for hackers or other unauthorized individuals to gain access to private conversations flowing through social media?
- How open might Facebook users be to discussing issues when they fear these private exchanges might be taken out of context by someone with or without a subpoena?
- Does this move, in effect, negate the concept of privacy on social networks?
- How far back might individuals or governments go in their search through our private lives?
- What protections are we being provided that information gained will not be disclosed unless it is criminal or subject to civil penalties?
How privacy fears impact behavior
Not only will privacy concerns likely encourage users to carefully consider political statements they make in their status updates, but it might encourage users to abandon social media altogether. In fact, when I discussed this in my class today, most of the students felt this was the last straw in the rapid decline of privacy in social media. Much of this fear centers around how the improved access provided by this government, social media portal or standard access to social media data will make it easier for hackers or other unauthorized individuals to gain access to private conversations.
With improved access, what is to stop prospective employers from hacking social networks to discover inappropriate behaviors or demonstration of an unacceptable work ethic? Do employers have a right to such unguarded disclosures? If not, how do you effectively close down this avenue for improved access to the private sentiments and feelings of individuals?
And, from a marketing perspective, how will these changes impact the behavior of consumers in social networks? Social networks are a boon for marketers, giving them access to your thoughts, feelings, and purchase intentions. Social networks are a vehicle for amplifying a brand’s message so it reaches new prospective customers linked to existing customers. Users share insights, help new customers overcome problems, and answer questions that impact purchase intentions. If consumers shun using social networks over fears for their privacy, all of these benefits might disappear.
How can individuals protect themselves from inadvertent disclosures in social media without crippling the community so many enjoy in their online social networks?
What other changes in online behavior might we expect once the government and others have access to our social network?
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Hausman and Associates, the publisher of Hausman Marketing Letter, is a full-service marketing agency operating at the intersection of marketing and digital media.