Social media sites are increasingly finding themselves under the microscopes of privacy advocacy groups who criticize ever-growing data warehouses on global citizens. But as the social craze spills into the corporate ecosystem, individuals aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about what the likes of Facebook are planning on doing with all this information.
It’s not uncommon for corporate entities to have “private” or “closed” pages where only direct employees can interact, post, exchange ideas and use the social platform to achieve some collaborative objective. Sites like Facebook have proven useful in disseminating information, enabling global teamwork and facilitating the spread of ideas — the platform or its success isn’t under scrutiny here. Twitter has also proven that 140 characters are sufficient to spread news from one end of the globe to the other and in the process managed to help overthrow oppressive governments.
I’m not questioning the effectiveness of these tools, but rather the lack of privacy controls and ethical behaviour by the platform owners. In the case of “private” Facebook pages, where employees are free to interact and collaborate, the notion of secrecy and corporate competitive advantage are no longer clearly delineated — after all, once posted, the information lives on Facebook’s servers, not under corporate lock and key.
Competitive advantage is something that is typically shrouded in secrecy and its disclosure tightly controlled and orchestrated. In a traditional sense, corporations might use email encryption and digital rights management to help control the spread of such information within a tightly controlled group — at the extreme end, businesses with expensive secrets typically choose isolated and disconnected systems to store such information.
So what of all the information that gets posted on a corporation’s supposedly “private” page? The decision to post a picture from your last holiday belongs to you, but posting details of features in a yet to be released product surely belongs to your employer. One could argue that posting such information in a “private” page is relatively safe because it is visible to a closed group of people who would otherwise have access to it within the corporate environment. For me however, this is where the security lines become quite blurry.
You see, there are no enforceable mandates to stop Facebook trawling through all this data. What it chooses to do with it in the long term may be the decision of regulators and privacy watchdogs, but even though Facebook might be prohibited from handing over such information to third parties, there is nothing to stop them using the data for themselves.
There’s no doubt that Facebook is reading, indexing and correlating the information we post. In that respect Facebook is no different to Gmail, both read through our messages, private details and keywords to ensure the ads are properly targeted. It’s a business model built on access to private information and is directly linked to the profitability of these organizations.
At the center of this massive data warehouse is a billion dollar conflict of interest which dictates that we hand over private information in return for so called ‘free services’. I heard this statement a while back and it stuck with me:
If the service is free, you are the product.
And if I look at all the free services being offered on the internet today, they tend to follow a similar business model — targeted advertising based on access to private information.
I’m not opposed to the business model. If people want to hand over their private details for the services on offer, that’s their business. Where I tend to draw a line is when corporate bodies pursue these social platforms in ways that could potentially lead to accidental disclosure of corporate secrets. After all, how many times have you accidentally sent an instant message, email or even a text message to the wrong person — perhaps not a daily occurrence, but it does happen.
Disclosure of secrets to an unintended audience could cost an organization millions of dollars, precipitate the loss of a competitive advantage and cause a media storm with little room for containment.
It’s not uncommon for people to have multiple profiles on Twitter or Facebook, one for work-related chatter and the other for private interaction. But given the fast pace of today’s techno jobs, how hard would it be to accidentally post something destined for the private forum into a public channel? There are plenty of recent examples to support this growing trend of social media fails  .
Surely, any corporation large enough to require global collaboration can probably sustain a small financial hit to implement all these social aspirations in-house and avoid accidental disclosures. As much as these tools help us to exchange ideas, I question the frivolousness which surrounds such a blatant disregard for intellectual property protection. We would all like to think that our workforce is skilled enough to prevent a major public relations disaster, however, some information is likely to slip through without censorship or permission.
I don’t see an issue in corporations wanting to interact with the general public via such platforms. But why tempt fate by posting on a public platform when you have the tools and facilities at your disposal to engineer the same experience on self-hosted servers?