Big Brother Wants Your Social Network

privacy, convenience, and marketing

Privacy is a growing concern among online users, despite reports that younger users don’t care about privacy online. Instead, online users recognize there’s a tradeoff between privacy and utility online. Different consumers find the balance between these two poles (costs and benefits) in different places. When it comes to your social network, sharing information, even personal information, sometimes shifts the balance in favor of utility with some users showing little concern for privacy.

your social networkThe question regarding your social network is how much access groups have to your information and whether there are limits as to what they can do with that information. 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 were abused in civil cases where attorneys invaded a plaintiff’s social network and shared embarrassing personal information unrelated to the case. But, at least, a judge must sign a subpoena so there are at least some checks and balances on who has access to the information posted on your social network.

Privacy on your social network

According to the brief news 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?

What happens when you post on your social network?

It doesn’t really matter which social platforms make up your social network, not everything you publish totally disappears, even if you delete the post. You can’t predict which posts will disappear when you delete them and which won’t. If someone in your network engaged with the content you posted, it likely remains indefinitely. The same is true if you have a private account when someone with a public profile engages with you. So NEVER post anything you wouldn’t want someone else to see. Various government agencies employ folks whose only job is to troll accounts of social networks looking for wrong doers. This is the main tool used to stop terrorists and other unscrupulous actors before they commit an act or catch them after the fact.

Social networks sell your data to others. As part of social media campaigns prior to the 2016 presidential election, Facebook sold a bunch of data to Cambridge Analytica, which was used improperly to obtain voter information used to build psychological voter profiles. The resulting profiles, built by using your posts to categorize your fears and biases, were used by foreign quasi-governmental agencies and international social media workers to influence these voters with messaging likely to influence their votes. Despite investigations and calls for reform little changed and we saw the same forces acting to destabilize the 2022 midterms, as well as influence other opinions such as those surrounding Covid-19 and the vaccines. Brexit appears to have suffered the same outside influences.

Social networks also use information gleaned from your posts to posit your like and dislikes, your religion, and other personal information that advertisers use to target advertising messages likely to influence your consumption decisions. Some might argue that this is just as bad as the use of the data by foreign assets, except that laws forbid the use of political influence in US elections by outside governments. Other, marketers like me, suggest that this use of social networks actually benefits the users by targeting advertising that reflects their interest. If you must see ads, in other words, its better to see ads for products you might find interesting than products you could care less about. And, you must see advertising since that’s what allows social networks to pay their bills. Otherwise, the disappear. It’s the cost you pay for the value you recieve from your social network just like advertising pays for the TV programs you like to watch.

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 provided with 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? Already some employers expect to view your social network prior to making a job offer to ensure you won’t bring criticism to the firm based on inappropriate posts, such as racial slurs or negative comments about the company.

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 that allow them to improve the product offers available to users like you. 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?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Use the comments section below to let me know how you feel.

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