Are companies being too loose with our privacy?

Privacy is a big issue, the world is gradually becoming more aware of just how devastating it can be when you lose control of your private details. Mistakes are being tolerated less and less, and yet companies continue to encourage customers to make decisions that are potentially risky.

In this case, I'm referring to the growing habit of companies relying on Facebook and Twitter as their points of contact for customers. It's a potentially dangerous practice, and companies need to realise that not every users knows enough to protect themselves adequately.



A current example would be Birdseye's campaign to find new recipes for their Chicken. There's a prize of £1000 on offer for the best entry, but in order to enter this competition hopeful chefs need to post to the Birdseye Facebook page.

Whilst most users do have Facebook accounts, a prize of £1000 is compelling enough to encourage even the wary to consider signing up for an account. Given the, frankly, horrific history of Facebook and privacy is this a wise move?

Quite aside from giving Facebook free advertising, what Birdseye are requiring is that would-be entrants willing trade an element of their privacy for the right to enter a competition. Facebook's business model is based upon the concept of amassing as much personal data as possible so that they can then display 'relevant' adverts to the user. Unfortunately, this business model does not sit well with best practice regarding privacy.

Facebook has a history of making decisions to the detriment of it's users, often resetting privacy controls to the default ("Available to Everyone") whenever they release a new control. For the average user, the task of maintaining these settings to protect their personal information is just too huge and so they don't do it. They may also not realise that the settings have changed, but whatever the cause their data is exposed to the world. It's all too easy to blame the users for being slack, but the reality of the matter is this - Facebook have a responsibility to protect that data and shouldn't be putting users in this position.



A lot of people in marketing, PR and other areas (including Government) believe that in today's world you must embrace social media. There's probably little harm in a company making use of social media, in the scheme of things, but we're now beginning to see campaigns where social media is given as the only way to contact the company/participate in a competition.

Few will  be surprised at this, but marketing types often know nothing (and don't really care) about things as trivial as privacy. Their job is to raise a company's profile and generate revenue, unfortunately for the rest of us this often equates to higher use of social media. It costs nothing to create a Facebook account, and so a Facebook campaign will usually cost peanuts compared to running the same campaign from your own webserver.

Facebook also has a captive audience, and so marketing drones do their very best to capitalise on this. Funnily enough, this is one of the privacy issues Facebook has - Marketing drones trying to use our data to sell us things. It's already a bit of a vicious circle - users sign up for Facebook to enter competition a, Facebook has more users and so companies are more likely to run Facebook centric campaigns.



Occasionally, companies that try to exploit social media shoot themselves in the foot. A famous example would be Vodafone's 'mademesmile' campaign;

Vodafone encouraged Twitter users to post with the hashtag '#mademesmile' and as an incentive the company promised to give a free handset away to some of these users. A plugin was used to display a selection of these tweets on Vodafone's own website.

Unfortunately for the company, users learned about the company's alleged tax evasion part way through the campaign. Users started posting negative comments about the company, using the hashtag '#mademesmile' which led to Vodafone's own website automatically displaying derogatory tweets as the campaign was hijacked.

If the companies running these campaigns can't even forsee the possible implications, why do they believe that their customers are any different?



No-one knows what the social networks will be trying to do next, and past history shows that there could easily be severe privacy implications for their users. The best advice that can be offered is to avoid using these networks, or severely restricting what you (and people who know you) post. Unfortunately companies around the world are making it harder and harder to avoid using these networks.

At the moment, it's a choice of entering a competition or not, but what happens when some bright-spark in marketing decides the company should only have a presence on Facebook? What happens when you need to contact a company, only to find that you need to hand your details over to Mark Zuckerburg first? If you've already purchased a product from that company, you may feel you have no choice.

Sadly, apathy is a strong force so there's very little that can be done to reverse the trend. We can suggest boycotting these companies, but it'll just never happen on sufficient a scale to make a change. They say you don't know the value of something until you've lost it, but the huge price of testing that theory with our privacy means we've got to find a compromise before corporations control all our data.