Tweet lightly: How social media could someday affect your credit score, insurance, and more

social media map

Did you know January 28 is Data Privacy Day in the United States, Canada, and the European Union? The intention behind Data Privacy Day is to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the privacy of personal information—not just amongst individual users of things like social networking, but also amongst businesses, organizations, and corporations that collect, retain, and access information about their clients, customers, and users. Companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have been drawing the attention of privacy advocates and regulators in recent years, but the reality is that there are tens of thousands of companies out there collecting, processing, and distributing personal information about individuals all the time. Increasingly, those companies are looking to things like social networking for cues about individuals’ behaviors, lifestyle, interests, and activities.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — Time’s 2010 Man of the Year — once famously declared privacy is not a “social norm,” and Facebook and other companies have consistently borne out that idea in the online world, collecting increasing amount of information about individuals and hiding behind privacy policies longer than the U.S. Constitution. Clauses of implied consent decree that users legally agree to having their information gathered and tracked, so long as they continue using accounts or services. In other words: Users can either agree to be tracked, or they can agree not to use a service. However, this cavalier approach to data collection and user profiling is drawing increased scrutiny not just from consumer and privacy advocates, but by governments and everyday people. The European Commission has just proposed new data protection laws that would enshrine a “right to be forgotten” for individuals, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has forced Facebook to toe the line on sharing user information with third parties. Google’s recent ground-up revamp of its privacy policies and user tracking is almost certain to draw FTC scrutiny as well.

Social impact

In observance of Data Privacy Day, Microsoft—which has a major stake in how data protection plays out, has released data from a survey of 5,000 people examining how they approach their online profiles and reputations. Overall, the survey found that 91 percent of respondents have taken some action to manage their overall online profile at some point in time, while about two thirds of respondents feel they are actually in control of their online reputations. However, only 44 percent indicated they actively consider the potential long-term consequences of their online actions; that means a surprising 56 percent do not consider any consequences from their online activity. Further, a surprising 14 percent believe they have been negatively impacted by the online activities of others. In this survey, “negative impact” means things like being fired from a job, being denied a mortgage, losing health insurance, or losing out on being accepted to a college or a job.

Microsoft Online Reputation survey results

It’s well-known that most employers these days commonly vet job candidates by checking out their social media postings: Pictures from a drunken party in college could come back to haunt job-seekers later in life, particularly as things like Facebook’s now-mandatory Timeline expose more of people’s online histories. Similarly, employers and others can easily trawl through someone’s postings to Twitter and other social media services. Someone who regularly uses insulting or demeaning language in their public tweets or fuels flame wars with strangers in forums might now be an employer’s first choice for a job that entails dealing with the public or customers politely. By the same token, tweeting “Mainstreet offramp at 90mph, flipped off ugly minivan that honked at me!!” is probably a fast way to lose a job as a delivery driver.

Messages, files, photos, videos and other things marked as private or shared with a small group on a social networking site are only private in a very limited sense. If someone you’ve shared with takes the material public, it’s out there for the whole world to see, forever, just like any other social media posting. Also remember that discovery processes for civil and criminal cases treat social networking posts just like any other communication: They can be subpoenaed, and providers have to turn them over the data regardless of whether that information was free for the whole world or intended for just a selected few. And those subpoenas don’t have to be about you specifically: they might be about one of your online “friends” or related to a fan page, group, discussion list, or blog you happen to like.

Do not track

Back in December 2010 the FTC fielded a do-not-track proposal that essentially extends the notion behind the the well-received U.S. do-not-call list for telephone solicitation to the Web. Consumers would be able to tell online advertisers that they do not want to be tracked or have data about their online data collected about them and used to target advertising. Although all the major Web browsers implemented support for the do-not-track behavior during 2011 (and Microsoft even submitted a version to the W3C as a standard), the bottom line is that, even if consumers enable the feature on all their browsers, sites and services must explicitly support it. It doesn’t work automatically, and there is no regulatory requirement that any site support it.

Of course, there is a negative consequence for high-profile companies (the Googles, Microsofts, and Facebooks of the world) if they fail to support something like the do-not-track technology: They can be publicly humiliated, which could impact their usership and, ultimately, the amount of money they can earn via their online advertising businesses. However, FTC commissioner Julie Brill, speaking at the George Washington University law school in observance of Data Privacy Day, noted a entirely different aspect of the industry: Low-profile data brokers who specialize in scraping and collecting information about Internet users—and then, of course, sell it to others. Like, perhaps, the Facebooks, Googles, and Microsofts of the world.

social-media-jugglingBrill indicated the FTC intends to take a much closer look at these sorts of data brokers, particularly since the data they collect is essentially unverified and hidden away. Internet users have no way of knowing, reviewing, or correcting what data brokers are saying about them, and similarly have no way to opt out of the data collection. In much the same ways inaccurate credit reports can have a severe negative impact on an individual’s finances (and can take months or even years of effort to correct, even in cases of fraud and identity theft), material collected about individuals via the Internet could have an impact on people’s everyday lives.

“Analysts are undoubtedly working right now to identify certain Facebook or Twitter habits or activities as predictive of behaviors relevant to whether a person is a good or trustworthy employee, or is likely to pay back a loan,” Brill said in her remarks. “Might there not be a day very soon when these analysts offer to sell information scraped from social networks to current and potential employers to be used to determine whether you’ll get a job or promotion?”

Brill outright admitted the FTC doesn’t even know who many of these data brokers are.

The FTC is expected to release its final report early next year, outlining policy principles and urging the industry to adopt and implement transparency principles that put consumers in control of the personal data being distributed about them. Unfortunately, these will be nonbinding recommendations: The FTC doesn’t have much in the way of enforcement power without assistance from Congress, and about the only thing the FTC can bring to bear right now is the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which only applies to credit reporting agencies (CRAs), defined as companies assembling and selling credit and financial information about individuals. It’s not clear whether scrapings from the Internet and social networking services would fall within that definition. And the final policy report is expected to fall far short of the EU’s proposed “right to be forgotten,” which itself is not above criticism.

It’s not all about you

There are essentially three classes of information that impact people’s online reputations:

  • Items posted by a user for the whole world to see
  • Items posted by a user intended only for a select group
  • Items posted about a user by a third party

This last case is noteworthy because it’s singularly outside of a users’ control. In the same way we can’t control what people say when we leave a room, we can’t control what people say about us on social networking services. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to say things online they would never say in real life; equally unfortunately, those kinds of insensitive or outright untrue comments can have an impact on our real lives. The day may come when it’s possible to negatively impact someone’s credit score just by saying enough negative things about them online.

To combat this possibility, industry leaders like Microsoft and Google recommend users be proactive and keep an eye on what’s being said about them online. Both companies recommend regularly searching for all variations on their names in popular search engines to see what turns up. Microsoft’s survey found that only 37 percent of Internet users do this. (Among other things, Google recommends automating these types of searches with a Google Alert. (Unfortunately, you have to have a Google account to do that, and will be subject to Google’s we-track-everything policies.) If you find your online reputation is less flattering than you’d hoped, there’s not much you can do about it: Once something is published on the Internet, it’s essentially available to anyone, forever.

One tactic for maintaining some online privacy can be to keep your personal and professional lives separate. Maybe have one profile that’s public and available to the world — including employers, schools, government agencies and others. Then, have separate profiles, screen names, and email addresses that handle your personal business, and keep those under tighter control, utilizing the privacy tools available on most social networking services and sites. (Bearing in mind that nothing available on the Internet is truly private.) If you do separate personal and professional roles, don’t cross-pollinate the two! There’s no point to having separate setups if you’re just going to link back and forth between them.

Keep a lid on it

A little over a two years ago, current Google chairman Eric Schmidt opined on CNBC that if people were doing something they didn’t want anyone to know, maybe they shouldn’t be doing it in the first place; Schmidt has also frequently expressed disdain for anonymity online, once declaring it “too dangerous.” Comments like these from a top executive at one of the world’s most pervasive providers of online services — and advertising — should be troubling to anyone who doesn’t feel all the details of their lives ought to be accessible to anyone at any time

Although we can’t control what others say about us, or what companies are compiling about us, we do have control over what we do ourselves. A good rule of thumb for managing online privacy and reputation is “think before you post.” If you’ve separated your personal and professional online lives, make sure you’re logged into the right account. And before posting a candid photo or hot-under-the-collar remark, think “Is this something I really want associated with me for years?” Because whether you answer yes or no, it will be.

Image credit: Shutterstock / ra2 studio / VLADGRIN

Computing

No more wild goose chase: ‘Duck.com’ now leads to DuckDuckGo instead of Google

DuckDuckGo recently acquired a shorter domain name from fellow search engine competitor Google. As a result, longtime and new DuckDuckGo users can now access the privacy-focused search engine by going to duck.com.
Computing

Windows 10 user activity logs are sent to Microsoft despite users opting out

Windows 10 Privacy settings may not be enough to stop PCs from releasing user activity data to Microsoft. Users discovered that opting out of having their data sent to Microsoft does little to prevent it from being released.
Social Media

Instagram could be making a special type of account for influencers

Instagram influencers fall somewhere between a business profile and a typical Instagram, so the company is working on developing a type of account just for creators. The new account type would give creators more access to analytical data.
Web

Encryption-busting law passed in Australia may have global privacy implications

Controversial laws have been passed in Australia which oblige tech companies to allow the police to access encrypted messages, undermining the privacy of encryption with potentially global effects.
Social Media

You can now share saved Facebook posts with a Pinterest-like collection tool

Facebook collections can now be shared with friends if you also want to allow them to contribute to the list. Facebook is rolling out an update that allows users to add a contributor to their collections, or lists of saved Facebook posts.
Mobile

Broadway actor tells Kanye West to get off his phone during opening night

Theater actors can get understandably upset when they spot someone in the audience fiddling with their phone instead of watching the show. The other night that audience member was Kanye West, and he got called out for it.
Social Media

This event topped Facebook’s biggest moments of the year — again

As the year comes to a close, Facebook is looking back on what users discussed most over the last year. For two years in a row, International Women's Day topped the list. So what else is on the list?
Social Media

This band owns Twitter, according to list of top accounts and tweets for 2018

What was the biggest buzz on Twitter in 2018? Twitter's 2018 Year in Review highlights the biggest tweets, accounts, and hashtags. The most-tweeted celebrities, movies, TV shows, athletes, politicians and more in Twitter's 2018 trends.
Social Media

What do yodeling and Kylie Jenner have in common? YouTube’s top 2018 videos

In a true nod to the variety found on YouTube, the platform's top 10 list of videos from 2018 range from celebrities to sports, from perfectly tossing a picture frame on the wall to a kid yodeling in aisle 12 at Walmart.
Home Theater

It took Tom Cruise to raise awareness of this troublesome TV setting

Tom Cruise, in an unexpected PSA tweet, asks you to turn off motion interpolation on your TV, but stops short of how to do it. Here's more on the topic, along with links to a guide on how to rid your TV of the dreaded "soap opera effect."
Computing

Make a GIF of your favorite YouTube video with these great tools

Making a GIF from a YouTube video is easier today than ever, but choosing the right tool for the job isn't always so simple. In this guide, we'll teach you how to make a GIF from a YouTube video with our two favorite online tools.
Business

Amazon scouted airport locations for its cashier-free Amazon Go stores

Representatives of Amazon Go checkout-free retail stores connected with officials at Los Angeles and San Jose airports in June to discuss the possibility of cashier-free grab-and-go locations in busy terminals.
Social Media

Snapchat facial recognition could soon power a new portrait mode, code suggests

Digging into Snapchat's code suggests a handful of upcoming camera features, including a portrait mode. The feature appears to use facial recognition A.I. to blur the background. The code also suggests an updated camera interface.
Computing

Google+ continues to sink with a second massive data breach. Abandon ship now

Google+ was scheduled to shut its doors in August 2019, but the second security breach in only a few months has caused the company to move its plan forward a few months. It might be a good idea to delete your account sooner than later.