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Are social media giants betraying your trust?

Matt Kapko | June 26, 2014
The leading social media companies are outraged over NSA surveillance, but would that spying even be possible if Facebook, Google and Twitter weren't collecting data and selling it to online marketers? Social media companies unintentionally opened new windows for spies to creep into our lives, and their claims of innocence are insincere.

Revelations about the National Security Agency's widespread surveillance of online activity has roused the ire of social media firms, but it also reveals the extent to which these companies are at least partially to blame. How much of this personal data would be available if these companies weren't collecting and mining it for profit in the first place?

It should come as no surprise that the pools of data amassed by Facebook, Google, Twitter and others are being used for financial gain. While these incredibly powerful and important sharing and collaboration tools come with a price, and advertising is the currency by which their money flows.

These massive, almost unavoidable and free platforms entice us to share as much as possible about ourselves in ways that inevitably push our privacy out the window. The trade-off is simple, albeit creepy at times. To make the creep factor even worse, your personal data isn't used only by the social media company you sign up for. Your information is often sold to nameless data brokers not bound by any terms of service or privacy agreement.

We mostly have ourselves to blame for any victimization that occurs, but that still doesn't necessarily shield these social companies and allow them to skirt all responsibilities to their users. Each of them is following the path of least resistance, simplifying the issue to government surveillance when it could just as easily focus on the inner workings of social advertising.

Indeed, our collective shock is primarily directed at the overreaches made by government agencies while the shadowy practices of data brokers that buy and sell that same personal data for targeted advertising go largely unchecked.

"The technology is interesting, and amazing, and new-fangled and crazy," says Seth Shafer, research analyst at SNL Kagan. "That battle has been going on for a long time between not wanting to be marketed to in certain ways but still wanting the benefits of the relationship."

Deflecting Criticism by Omission
Legal necessity requires social media companies to cooperate with the government, but their association with data brokers is entirely by choice and for profit. While almost every major technology company has taken President Barack Obama to task over the NSA's incursion into our privacy, they're saying little about the widening role of data brokers.

"When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we're protecting you against criminals, not our own government. The U.S. government should be the champion for the Internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they're doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote after calling President Obama to express his frustration.


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