Monday, November 30, 2009

Social Media, Cell Phones and Online Shopping: Is Big Brother Us?

Is Big Brother watching you? Books like George Orwell's classic 1984 and films such as Minority Report and Eagle Eye present a nightmarish vision of an omniscient government watching our every move. The reality is far different story, paranoia about the Patriot Act notwithstanding. As recently as 2004, FBI agents still used laptops with Intel 286 processors.

But is it possible that the government simply doesn't need hidden cameras, high-tech listening devices and secret agents everywhere in order to know the intimate details of our lives—that we're doing it for them?

Consider a few technologies that have become part of daily life:

Cell Phones: these can not only be used to take pictures virtually anywhere—and instantaneously upload them to the Internet—with GPS tracking, they can also be used to record our every move and pinpoint our current location.

Credit Cards: the credit card companies, and services they report data to, know what you buy, when, where, and how much. If government-run healthcare ever becomes a reality here, Washington bureaucrats may be very interested in any "suspect" lifestyle purchases: tobacco, alcohol, fast food, ice cream, scuba lessons, rock climbing gear...

Social Media: This is a treasure trove of information for any Big Brother-ish entity. You're telling the world what you think, where you are, who you know, how well you know them, who they know, and more.

It isn't just overweening or Orwellian government agencies that may take advantage of the increasing amount of voluntary online exposure of personal information of course. Scammers and criminals can take advantage of such data as well. MediaPost recently reported that Facebook is cracking down on ad networks that display misleading advertising or promote scam offers through its site. Facebook can even get a person killed.

Of course, the news isn't always so grim. Facebook can also be used by a crime victim to track down an assailant, and it kept this teen out of jail.

Our online lives are also of interest to private companies. Social media is now used routinely in the hiring process. That can be good or bad, depending on what recruiters find about you. It isn't just HR professionals, however, who may be monitoring your tweets or other social media use however; Facebook cost this woman her insurance benefits.

And then there's Google. Searchers and consumers love Google for its simple interface and relevant results, and marketers love Google for the traffic it drives to their websites. We'd all best hope that Google never abandons it's "Don't be evil" mantra given the amount of information it has about your online life.

And as the search giant increases its activities in mobile, it knows not just what you're doing online, but where you are and where you've been. Shelly Palmer finds this creepy, and Hillel Fuld worries that with the Chrome OS, cloud computing and other recent developments, "it seems Google is collecting a little too much information on my every move, and it is starting to make me uncomfortable."

So what's a person to do? Shunning new technology and going back to a pre-Internet lifestyle really isn't an option. There is too much convenience, too many new opportunities and capabilities presented by social media and other online tools to adopt a Luddite mindset.

The answer, rather, is just to be smart and sensible about the use of social media and new technologies:
  • By all means, share your professional background and accomplishments online so that those who may hire you, as an employee or consultant, can find it. But be careful about how much and what type of personal information you post.

  • Never disparage anyone by name online. The information will be there forever. There is no profit in burning bridges. If you feel compelled to report a bad experience with a company or product, make the criticism fair, accurate and factual. And if the company addresses your issues, give them credit, in the same venue where you complained.

  • Be careful who you connect with. There's no need to follow everyone on Twitter, friend everyone on Facebook or connect with everyone on LinkedIn who reaches out to you. This doesn't mean you should only interact with people you know personally, of course (social media is about expanding your network after all), but it's best to know something about the person.

  • Never Twitter drunk.

  • Think twice about doing anything online that you wouldn't do if your mother, your boss and a police officer were staring over your shoulder.

  • It's also a good idea to periodically Google yourself and check a site like 123people to see what information is available about you online, and correct any erroneous data if possible.
Despite the risks, social media, cell phones and other online technologies are a boon to our lives few could have imagined just a couple of decades ago. Just try to apply common sense and wisdom to your use of these new tools—Big Brother, and everyone else, is watching.


Contact Tom Pick: tomATwebmarketcentralDOTcom

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