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« September 18 is National Offlining Day | Main | Media Companies Must Divide To Conquer »

A Privacy 9-11 Could Derail Social

I have a macabre habit. No matter how hard I try, I can't kick it.

Each year, come the first week of September, I deliberately seek out the most horrific footage from September 11th that I can find. I watch videos of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center at full speed and of desperate workers leaping to their death.

As a lifelong New Yorker, this is my way of coping with the tragedy. I purposefully make myself feel uneasy to remind myself that if we get too comfortable, we will forget and it will happen again.

Making a connection between a global tragedy like 9/11 and digital privacy may seem like a leap, but I am going to try. Hopefully you'll bear with me. My apologies in advance.

Flashback to early 2001 and you might recall that America was blissfully ignorant about our national security. Terrorism was something that happened elsewhere, never on our shores. It didn't enter our mind such an event could happen here until a few dozen suicidal extremists found a weak link in our system, commandeered our airspace with simple box cutters and murdered thousands of innocent people. They forced us to think the unthinkable.

Today I have an similar uneasy feeling about social networking and, to some degree, cloud computing. I believe that a Privacy 9-11 looms. I don't have evidence to support it. All I have is a bad vibe that too many people are apathetic about securing their privacy and this creates lots of weak links waiting to be exploited with digital box cutters.

The risk of a Privacy 9-11 is not rooted in technology. Rather, it's about sociology.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and others have hardened technological defenses that protect our privacy. My concern is user apathy. Too many people today have a free-spirited attitude about their privacy. To be sure, there are lots of people who are paranoid. But we are outnumbered.

Anyone in security will tell you that a good defense is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Net, no matter how hardened our technological defenses are, it's my bet that somewhere someone will suffer a major privacy leak that impacts millions, sends shock waves through our system and makes us feel less secure than we did before. Such an event could slow interest in social networking and derail its marketing potential.

Perhaps this event is years away. Maybe it is completely far fetched. What's certain, however, is that as our once-analog social lives become increasingly digitized, now is the time for leaders to table the issue. Marketers, consumers, government and (not least of all) the platforms - all of whom have much at stake here - must work together to ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect and defend the digital privacy of our netizens.

Right now, we're not.

The risk of a Privacy 9/11 - a cataclysmic event that exposes the private information of millions of people - can be prevented if we act. Privacy, like terrorism, is something many don't think about until they have to. Some are doing an exemplary job of showing people just how their data is being used. Others - marketers included - need to go to the same lengths.

Consider, for example. The e-commerce giant doesn't rely on Facebook's arcane permissions screen to explain what data they share with your friends if you opt into their new social sharing features. Forrester analyst Auggie Ray points out that Amazon tells consumers in detail what will/wont be shared and the benefits in opting in. 

Much the same, Google last week simplified its privacy policy across all of its sites in an effort to make them more user-friendly. It also maintains a Dashboard that every user can look at to see just how much or little of their data is on Google's servers.

Finally, perhaps stung by prior criticism, Facebook too recently simplified its privacy controls. More importantly they gave users the ability to monitor for suspicious logins and even log out of Facebook remotely.

Amazon, Google and Facebook should be lauded for educating consumers. They see consumer privacy and security as a mutual responsibility - which it is. But this is only the beginning.

The next step is for marketers, government, media and platforms to stand together in shaping standards in how we educate the public about the risks of our increasingly socially connected world - and in setting behavioral norms. For example, a study released by Georgia Tech found that passwords today  should be a minimum of 12 characters . Too few sites mandate such lengths. A coalition could change this.

The time to prepare for a Privacy 9/11 is now - even if it means that we might make some people uneasy. It's for everyone's own good and it all starts with education.

Reader Comments (6)

Agreed. I think we're way past the time of a needed media campaign to educate the public on what a 'strong' privacy protection really is. It could be as simple as several well developed PSA's that educate on three effective ways to protect your social media presence through your password - 1) using 12 characters that make pass 'phrases', including letters and numbers 2) using different passwords across different accounts 3) changing your passwords regularly.

September 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterK Miller

From a user perspective, I admit to feeling very comfortable with my social graph. Comfortable enough that I share my location data which, when graphed, will reveal patterns. Until 2 months ago, also evident will be the patterns of the people I spend my time with. I often include my friends in my location sharing..."I'm enjoying a nice cold beer with @username from the deck of @barname."Two months ago, I realized I need to ask permission of those I "out" in my streams whether or not I can include them. I took a cue from Amazon, Google and Facebook by asking my circle to opt-in, understanding what will be revealed and who will see the data before posting. It may seem like overkill just to share how much I am enjoying my beer, but I want to protect my friends and uphold the integrity of my relationships.

September 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiana Lehua

I agree that online privacy issues need to be given a lot more attention. I remember, when the Internet was in its infancy, it was perfectly normal for an individual to use the same password for every online account. Today, with multiple social media sites and online accounts that demand valid email addresses, personal information like home addresses, postal codes and even phone numbers, it is imperative that they also step up their password requirements to more than 10 characters. It chills me to imagine, with my 20-plus years on the Internet, how many people have my email address in an information bank somewhere. With this excellent post as a reminder, I think I will go ahead and change my passwords tonight. Thank you.

September 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlexandra Reid

FYI, the georgia tech link is linking back is this what was intended?perhaps this is the link?

September 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Keese

You're right to identify education Steve, and it doesn't have to come through the traditional means. I think the designers of social games have a great opportunity to set new behavioural norms around privacy in social networks, for example.

September 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Booth-Lucking

Great points. There certainly should be more education on these issues. And, I feel sometimes that since many young people have grown up with technology surrounding them, they are so comfortable with it that they sometimes overlook their own privacy.

September 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Martin

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