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Personal information in the age of social media

The global reaction to WhatsApp’s August 2016 announcement, in which the “updating” of its terms and privacy policy was revealed, has been interesting. This update, essentially, allows for the sharing of user information between WhatsApp and its owner of roughly two years, Facebook.

The reaction has been largely alarmist.

The Guardian, Independent, and The Telegraph warn users to opt out of the sharing of information between the two platforms. TechCrunch takes a more balanced approach, outlining the European legislative response to the announcement, and quoting the UK’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham. According to Denham: “There’s a lot of anger out there. And again it goes back to promises, commitment, fairness and transparency.”

Essentially, it’s fear-based — and users responding in a knee-jerk manner seem not to have the means to make informed decisions as to their personal data.

As a Facebook Marketing Partner, and working within the social media arena on a day to day basis, my perspective is framed by two factors — fortunate insight into the Facebook infrastructure, to some degree; and an open-minded attitude towards the future of data, encompassing everything from a user’s telephone number through to information on resource sharing, which will inevitably become our reality as the internet of things gains traction.

Consider this as a caveat of sorts.

Using Facebook and WhatsApp as an example in the greater scope of personal information, consider the data that will be shared:

  1. The user’s telephone number
  2. The last time the user logged into WhatsApp

Bearing in mind that WhatsApp’s message encryption means that no one, including Facebook and WhatsApp itself, is able to read messages. What such information sharing will allow for is knowledge of various numbers that belong to a single individual – extremely helpful to marketers in an economy such as ours, where cost-sensitive users will typically own numerous SIM cards.

The digital hypochondriac vs healthy paranoia

Information Facebook holds on individuals is regulated. Should the organisation receive a warrant from a relevant authority to release information for criminal investigations or tax evasion, for example, it is legally bound to do so. This is something users agreed to when signing on to the platform. It doesn’t take too much imagination to consider how this might pan out under an abusive regime, but the conditions for information release are tight, and it’s likely to assume that inconvenience experienced in this regard would be minimal.

There’s also the risk of security breaches. These occur everywhere – recollect the PlayStation fiasco a couple of years ago. Facebook’s security is world class, but nothing is impenetrable.

Unique you

Rather than hoping to hold users over a barrel, the motivation for gathering information on its users always comes back to relevance. Users demand it, and as content relevance has increased, so the intolerance of irrelevant content has increased with it. Social media remains in existence for one reason – users find value in the experience. Value is predicated by relevance of content, on an individual basis.

Facebook does not share information that personally identifies users without express permission from the user. Information classified as “personally identifiable” includes data such as a user’s name, email address, contact number, or any other information that could be used to either make contact with, or identify the individual.

Information that is shared, is done to provide feedback as to the efficacy of marketing campaigns – for example: a) how many people viewed the ad; b) how many times was an app downloaded, or an action taken, as a result of the ad; or c) non-identifiable information, e.g. “female” . So, if a marketer is targeting professionals in their 20s, Facebook would break down feedback in terms of gender, age group, and location, as an example.

The justification for this is that it improves the ecosystem for all users. Recognising that individuals are now publishers, and continued use of the platform requires a recognisable value-add, Facebook needs to ensure this by classifying interest by sophisticated targeting – both users and advertisers.

Are you in, or are you out

Social is evolving. Daily. Security is a risk. If you’re evading taxes you might have issues. But, for the vast majority of users, social media offers highly targeted content. For business, it provides an opportunity to engage with audiences in a way that is welcomed.

Being wary is good. Get educated on what rights you’ve signed away when accepting those Ts&Cs. In a world where relevance is everything, at some point, we need to decide if the risk outweighs the gain, or vice versa. In the case of social media, sharing personal information is the price for relevance which, whether users are conscious of or not, is what they demand.