I see you, you see me...

In an earlier post, I argued that product managers in social media companies need to start sharpening their understanding of privacy and security issues. Here's another reason why:

Until now, geolocation has been one of those quaint, semi-useful buzzwords: '... now with geolocation!!!' Twitter, Buzz and Foursquare -- the main exponents of exposing your location -- might not be small, but they pale in comparison to Facebook. With the announcement that Facebook will be enabling geolocation next month, Pandora's Box has been torn open; whether you like it or not, geolocation is about to become a huge part of your life.

While there may be revenue-related reasons for geolocation, such helping local vendors fire advertising at you with laser-like precision, that's not the only reason why some social media vendors err on the side of exposing information about you. Bad product design is another part of the story, whether it's designing features for a hackneyed stereotype of twenty-somethings, or not thinking through the use cases or user stories very carefully. Sure, there's a marketing argument for making the games I play visible as part of my XBox gamertag, but really, does it help all that much to show how much I've played, or what achievements I've unlocked. People may be playing your game, but they might not be playing it that much. The time when I last played a game is another piece of information I may not want people to know, if I don't want them to know when I'm at home, or when I was playing Halo instead of cleaning out the rain gutters.

I'm choosing a video game-related example because it points directly to the scenario that might start the backlash against these casual assumptions about social media privacy and security. Teenage stalker turns violent. Children accidentally revealing details about their family's location, buying habits, or whatever, leading to bad repercussions for the parents, such as identity theft. Information about a child's interactions with teachers or other adults outside the home that give the wrong impression of what's happening. Even worse would be the the right impression in ways that raise questions about who should have noticed the signs of inappropriate or abusive behavior.

Bruce Schneier worries that we'll lose our privacy to social media unless we fight for it. I'm a little more sanguine, because I think the probability of a "Think of the children!" moment is pretty high. Many in the mainstream press already have a dim view of bloggers. Their brief infatuation with Twitter and other social media of newer vintage might quickly take a dark turn.

I don't envy the PM who has to raise this issue with their company's version of Mark Zuckerberg. You'll sound like a Chicken Little, worrying over something that hasn't happened yet. The unfortunate thing is, the fixes are likely to be as simple as, "Insert a privacy wizard into the registration process." For a variety of reasons, some unnecessary, that's not happening in a lot of cases.

Comments

I See You, You See Me...

This is an important topic - thanks for bringing it up! One consideration is that most geolocation applications are participatory, where you opt in to contribute and share. I had to provide a great deal of business information (even a phone number) in order to comment on this blog post. This is fine, because I wanted to participate and felt OK with sharing my information with Forrester. Other potential commenters may not want to share the their information (or may not have a business email address), and hence may make a choice not to participate in the discussion because of it.

With regards to the XBox example: XBox actually doesn't provide any geolocation information: you can share what you are playing, but (unless I'm missing something) you are not sharing your lat/long coordinates or specific address information. That said, I do agree wholeheartedly that vendors should think about the role of privacy in geolocation applications. I think examples such as Foursquare and Gowalla are relatively harmless, but then again, I wouldn't suggest adding your home address as a Foursquare venue. But these are things that us, as participants in social networks and geolocation applications, need to consider prior to joining. Perhaps it is a similar argument to letting kids watch violent content on television or in videogames. I value the ability to decide for myself - and while I agree that privacy controls are important, if I am uncomfortable with sharing my location then I can choose not to participate.