How private is your social media data?

We've all heard about ex-Senator Anthony Wiener's infamous tweets by now. Weiner's behavior aside, events took on a life of their own once multiple women came forward to disclose photos and tweets of a (ahem) spicy nature, and the media went wild with the titillating story. But what you may not know is that there is a new company that has been launched which specifically tracks and data mines your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, (and other) online posts. This company then stores your information for seven years and sells it to anyone who may be thinking of hiring you. Now you, like Weiner, will have to find employers who don't mind your past behavior online... Ouch! Should we rethink privacy in social media?

Social Intelligence Corp. won approval from the US Federal Trade Commission to open its online doors last week, and your online history is what they intend to sell. Now some will say that anything you post online is public, exactly as the FTC ruled in this case, but privacy advocates are not buying this logic. More troubling is Social Intelligence's intention to build files from online data that they keep for seven years, just like your credit report. This begs the question. How private is your social media engagement, and how private should it be?

I am in a unique position to comment on this, because I worked in the mortgage industry prior to opening Lotus Live Design & Social Media. While in the mortgage world, I dealt with credit reports on a daily basis, so I'm very familiar with this type of data tracking and reporting. The problem that I (and many others) found is that the data the credit bureaus collect favors corporate reporting over that of consumers. Credit report results consistently include data which is incorrect yet supplied by the same corporations who benefit monetarily from lower credit scores. The result of this collection and distribution of inaccurate data is that millions of Americans pay higher interest rates on everything from credit cards to insurance and home loans when incorrect data pushes their credit scores downward, which greatly benefits lenders and hurts consumers.

Another dirty little secret of the credit reporting industry is that they sell your private credit information to highest bidder with no background checks on that company, in real time. This is why you start receiving phone calls from other mortgage providers, who may even try to convince you that you just applied for a mortgage with them, or who use other deceptive tactics to get you calling them, as soon as your credit report is run for the purpose of getting a mortgage. Those companies know you just had your credit run for a mortgage because they bought this real time info from the same credit bureaus who are supposed to protect your personal credit information. The same credit bureaus who are busy selling you credit report tracking services to reduce identity theft and fraud are, in fact, selling your information to any company who wishes to pose as legitimate and has the cash to buy real time credit info on vast numbers of Americans. Is this where Facebook is headed also? Will it sell your information too?

If you have ever discovered incorrect information on your credit report you also know that it's almost impossible to get the information corrected by yourself. The words "sheer frustration" come to mind. Unless you have unlimited time to write letters and compile documentation to prove your case, you're basically screwed. And you can forget having the original creditor correct their mistake without many hours of calls. The process also can take anywhere from 45 to 90 days or more, which means that you may find out that your credit report is incorrect just as you signed a contract to buy a home within the next 30 days... so you end up paying more in interest for 30 years, or potentially losing that home purchase. Facebook, Google, and others are heading in the same direction.

I use this example because this is what has already happened in the highly regulated credit reporting industry, yet the FTC has just opened the door for another private company (which will doubtless turn into many companies) to collect your social media engagement information and to then sell it in ways that could cost you your job. How do you feel about this? I'd love your comments!

Did you know that there is no source that tracks the actual costs to consumers of inaccurate credit information? If one considers that a half point rise in interest rate on a home loan can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars for an individual homeowner, the costs are staggering! So there is a basis for concern over social media privacy issues, and online privacy in general.

What about your privacy?

Returning to the argument of those who feel your online life is fair game for profiteering, there is some justice in considering the internet as a public sphere. After all, as Senator Weiner discovered, once you've posted something online, it is available for others to locate due to the physical nature of servers and computing and the way data is stored. And there are also secondary comments and posts to consider, by  people who know you or who have responded to things you posted. So there is logic in saying that anything you post has gone "public" and is fair game. Courts have ruled on this already.

But there is also a counter argument. And if Facebook is any indication of privacy in social media push backs we can see a trend in increased concern over the unregulated sharing of your information by examining Facebook. For example, Congress is getting involved and considering online privacy legislation after fears about online privacy have heightened in the past few years, and European regulators plan to file a complaint with the FTC over Facebook's new photo tagging feature. When Facebook announced last year that it planned to sell your private contact information to third parties, an exodus from Facebook followed.

Yet Facebook, Twitter, and the other social media networks do have value, especially to small businesses for marketing. For marketing Facebook is turning out to bring better ROI than Google Ad Words. For general users there's the fun and exposure to interesting information that social media brings. Just look at the popularity of Facebook games and you can see that people do enjoy their interaction with others online via social media. There are even recent statistics that point to mobile app usage eclipsing regular internet usage nationwide. So there's no doubt that social media and cloud computing are on their way in.

So what's the answer if you want a maintain your privacy in our increasingly public, internet driven world?

First of all, be vigilant. Think before you post. Expect that everything you put online can (and will) eventually be accessible to someone you do not know. Plan ahead.

Secondly, learn what security settings are available for each social media site you use and create custom settings to protect your privacy. Facebook has updated their privacy settings several times and you can even choose specific people whom you want to restrict access to when you create custom privacy settings there. If you own a business then you should have a separate business Facebook fan page, with restricted privacy settings, for customers and leave your regular Facebook account as a personal one only.

Change your passwords monthly at least. Use sentences to create your passwords. Use upper and lower case letters plus numbers and other symbols. Personally I like to use affirmations. Be creative! Use at least 24 characters when possible.

Finally, hire specialists as needed to remove unwanted online data. If your time is valuable, and it is, then this is cost saving. Reputation management is one of the services we provide to our clients for example. Think of this as a form of public relations. Using advanced search techniques and software it's possible to clean out unwanted data (at least for now as I write this), and get it off the web. I only hope our process stays easier than having to deal with the credit bureaus! Keep your fingers crossed? Or write your congress person!