Who Owns Your Information?

Mitch HobishGrowth, Productivity

If you are a denizen of the various social networking sites, I hope you are aware of the battles that are raging with respect to “privacy” settings.

Some locations, such as Facebook, have as an overarching philosophy that all information you post should be available to everyone by default, and that it is your responsibility as a user of the services to determine who gets access to what information that you have freely posted at the site.  This also underlies their business model, as your personally identifiable information as well as things like photos, etc., may be shared with others, even outside your “friends”, unless you say otherwise, in an effort to monetize your information—you!  As I see it, the problem comes when folks with whom you probably wouldn’t want to share your weekend’s partying—or even just opinions about your workplace—have access to that information.

A relatively new entry in the field, Google+, has put in place a mechanism whereby you can easily define such access rights by setting up “circles”, so that, say, your friends can have access to certain information, and your employer other, probably more-limited, access.

I don’t participate in most of the tall-pole purely social networks, having chosen to limit my exposure to LinkedIn, nominally a professional network, not given to the excesses of others of more purely social ilk.  I long felt that LinkedIn’s inherent professionalism would immunize me from the vagaries of uninformed information sharing.

This rosy perspective was muddied significantly last week when I learned that since June 2011 LinkedIn had been checking out the possibilities afforded by making certain information available in what they called “social ads”.  Photos of others in my network who had expressed an opinion or a recommendation about a person or service were to be announced to me, to further inform me, I guess, of what others in my network found interesting, appropriate, or worthy of mention.

Such information was already available were I to check into that person’s profile, so it’s not the nature of the information that concerned me:  it was that this information was being pushed in my direction, rather than provided as a pull.  Further, this was made a default position, i.e., one had to opt out of sharing one’s own information in this fashion.  So, it wasn’t the information sharing that was problematical, but rather that such a change had been implemented without appropriate notice.

LinkedIn did announce this program (according to numerous news sources), but I must acknowledge that I never saw the announcement.  I don’t visit LinkedIn much, and when I do it’s generally for a specific focus.  My own targeted visits clearly led to my not becoming aware of the situation.

Once I learned of it—via published news media and a blog or two—I immediately went to the site and made sure that all such sharing was turned off.

I acknowledge that the information I place on LinkedIn is freely searchable, even by interested parties outside of the network, but this use of my name and bona fides without my express consent does not pass the smell test.

There’s nothing specific that I want to keep closely held.  I wouldn’t have opened up my professional persona on LinkedIn if I didn’t want some exposure.   It really is just a matter of principle.  So many of our rights and privileges are being rapidly eroded away by social constructs, government action and inaction, and personal apathy.  This one is one I can do something about, albeit it in a small way.

I am probably part of a very, very small group that actually reads (well, scans) software licenses and terms of service, as I’m always on the lookout for marketers who want to monetize, well, me.  In some cases, I’m OK with it; in most, however, I’m not.  If I don’t like the terms, I don’t participate.  But I want those terms known and clearly advertised if changed.  None of this “we can change this whenever we want, and it’s up to you to find out about it”.  Feh.

Who I am, what I do, with whom I do it, and other, similar information belongs to me and those with whom I associate—unless I expressly allow it to be shared.  LinkedIn’s change of service terms without blaring fanfare strikes me as inappropriate, and I just don’t like it.

LinkedIn has changed its policies as a result of the large number of complaints.  The information will still be pushed, but without specifics—no photos, just numbers of links who have a similar perspective.

I’ll be more vigilant about checking changes in service terms in future, although it’s difficult to do so, given the vast numbers of licenses and services that underlie the tools I use in my professional activities.  But I shouldn’t have to.  At the very least, notification of such changes should be part of the service model, with every attempt being made to communicate such to users.  A banner notification and/or a blog post—as was done for the LinkedIn change—is not enough.  Email would probably work better, or should be used in conjunction with these other modalities.

I might be willing to share my information; just let me make the decision about how and to whom.

Questions:  Are you aware of how various services and sites that you use/visit are using your information?  Is it important to you to know?  What difference could or does it make in your professional activities?  What can you do to ensure that your desires are met in this regard?  Would you pull your account, were you to find that you didn’t approve of policies?