Social Network Privacy on the iPhone

On May 8, 2010

Smartphones like the iPhone and their "always on" internet have sparked the creation of numerous social networking applications that allow you to connect and "check in" with your friends and co-workers wherever you are. Most of these apps offer the ability to add geolocation information to a post so others can see where you posted from. On the surface this appears to be a great way to connect with people and share with the world at large. Yet beneath the glossy veneer lie the issues of how much information about ourselves and about our daily lives we make public knowledge.

These apps can help connect people with similar interests and geographical locations allowing messages to be left for others. The power and polish that these networks bring are a real testament to what social media has to offer; and with their integration with mobile platforms like the iPhone and Android it becomes convenient and enticing to take up these apps. Therefore, while using social networking services like Facebook, Brightkite, or Loopt, there are three main ways we can run into problems: through the public, our friends, and the company.

First of all is the public. I’m sure most people want to retain at least a certain degree of privacy online. In the case of location-based social networks, one must consider who can see your location information and how they might use this in ways you might not consider. One highly publicized example of this is a website called Please Rob Me. While the site owner has taken down the search function of this site, the information is still public and the point the site was trying to make is still valid. When you post publicly it is like a giant billboard and the information we provide is given to essentially everyone. A great quote from this site sums up the problems very well:

"So here we are; on one end we’re leaving lights on when we’re going on a holiday, and on the other we’re telling everybody on the internet we’re not home."

We must be conscientious of who we trust with our information. Some of the social networking apps now have features to make the location less accurate but apart from setting it to just the city you are in it really isn’t much different. Every time you post where you are at you should ask yourself, "Would I care if a complete stranger in this town knew exactly where I was and what I am doing right now?" If not, perhaps you should make that a private post to just your trusted friends. 

Speaking of friends, who are your friends? Do you personally know everyone on your friend’s list, or are you one who accepts every request you receive? In the context of social networks, the definition of a friend, for many, is a loose term for someone they have met at some point either online or in person and may or may not know much if anything about. As your friends list grows this problem can become even harder to manage. Who are these people and who do they know (or who are they "friends" with)? As social media has become even important to advertising we are seeing an increase in attempts to acquire friend data either through voluntary means (think Facebook applications) or through hacked accounts. Sharing your information with only friends is only as secure as each friend’s account. 

The last piece in this chain of trust is the social media companies themselves. For the most part it is in the companies best interest to keep user data secure in order to instill trust in its users. Though, as you can probably guess, we have recently seen Facebook take advantage of its users trust in order to expand its ability to use private data for financial gain. We must be mindful of what the companies that run our social media applications are doing with our data. Companies, like Facebook, may start with a clear policy of privacy, but as time passes and the lure of larger revenue increases, social media companies may evolve into creatures that may be too public for some people’s taste.

As a final note we should also be careful of ourselves. Images and opinions can have a powerful effect on what other’s know about us. As more and more employers look to social media to see what type of person they are thinking of hiring people are realizing that what they say and do on social media sites can, and will, effect their opportunities in the real world. In the early days of the internet, people enjoyed a freedom to "be someone else" online. There was a distinct separation between online and real life. Today, this is not the case as one’s online persona is tied more and more to the person behind the keyboard.

So as we open our iPhones to tweet or to reply to our friends on Facebook, remember how our actions online affect, us and be mindful of your chain of trust.