Social networking technology is increasingly becoming part of New Zealanders’ lives, fuelling concerns about the implications such technology is having on user privacy on the internet. Social networking applications that have been developed for mobile phones have added to this list of concerns. As social networking is being integrated across a number of platforms, it is becoming more difficult for users to have complete control over their personal information despite their best efforts via privacy settings.
Recently, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff issued a public opinion survey that shows about four out of five New Zealanders aged 18-30 now use social networking sites such as Facebook. The survey also revealed high levels of concern amongst New Zealanders about privacy and risks to their personal information over the internet. These concerns are not without foundation.
As well as general internet-related privacy issues, social networking sites raise issues in respect of third party use of personal information. For example, third party application developers have designed gaming applications that are accessible and played through the social networking platform. One concern is the ability of third party application developers to access without notice the personal information of those who use the applications. Even so, third parties can gain access to users’ personal information by a number of other ways including with authorisation of non-transparent privacy policies and through the unauthorised use of information posted by user’s friends. All of this information can be used to create profiles of users for a wide variety of purposes including targeted marketing by businesses and identity theft. Although most social networking sites provide privacy friendly settings, these are often not the default settings and certain information can still be left unprotected such as through linking to photos and information. Yet, the majority of respondents in the survey were under the impression that these sites are mainly private spaces and would be concerned if businesses/third parties they did not know would be able to get hold of their personal information.
The iPhone application “Foursquare” provides a good example of the lack of privacy security surrounding social networking sites. Foursquare is a location-based social networking application for mobiles. The GPS allows you to find your friends, search venues and add friends in the near vicinity and you can then post “shouts” to those friends based on where you are and what you are doing. It also offers a gaming element whereby you earn points with every “check-in” and you are rewarded amongst other things, for the number and creativity of check-ins. The application allows for users to have complete control over what friends they connect with and who can and cannot see their updates. Despite these efforts to protect users’ personal information, the risk comes from integrating with less secure social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It allows for Foursquare users to post their check-ins/updates on Facebook and Twitter so that their location can be seen by an audience much larger than just their Foursquare friends. A Dutch website, PleaseRobMe.com, was launched to collate Foursquare data posted on Twitter accounts and to show who is and is not currently in their home. Although the idea behind the site was not to encourage burglary, it has succeeded in showing just how hard it is to keep track of your personal information and the potential social networking offers for profiling individuals by piecing together information available on the internet.
Aside from these risks, the internet and social networking offers huge potential for businesses to be seen and heard. For example, businesses in America have been capitalising on the Foursquare iPhone application by using it to advertise discounts/offers, promote their venues and reward customer loyalty. However, New Zealand businesses looking to offer social networking services should be vigilant about how they treat people’s personal information, including:
- keeping users well informed about the use of their information by the social network;
- keeping users well informed about the privacy and security risks;
- offering guidance on how users should handle their own information and information of other people on the social networking site;
- offering privacy-friendly default settings;
- allowing users control over their profile data, as well as secondary uses of their profile and traffic data.
New innovations in respect of social networking means privacy issues are not likely to fade into the background anytime soon. Generally, businesses seeking to capitalise on social networking should seek advice on how to comply with New Zealand’s privacy standards and codes.