The Dark Side of Social Media
by Linda Goin

Linda becomes paranoid in this article, as she speculates on the darker side of social media and how it could, in the future, “own” its users.

The Good, Bad and Ugly in Social Media

I'm all for social media, especially if you want to build a business, connect with friends and keep your mother happy with a daily virtual hug. But, there are two sides to every coin, and social media also has its down side. In fact, some sides are downright ugly, or could turn ugly for any given person at any moment in time.

I'm not alone in feeling somewhat paranoid about using various social media platforms or with putting all my virtual eggs into one social media basket. In this article, I want to provide you with some information to think about, especially if you're one of those media geeks who wants to try out every new electronic gizmo before anyone else gets their hands on it first.

Location, location, location

Real estate sales people often repeat the mantra, "location, location, location," when pressed about a property's value. Location is everything, and if you are into letting people know where you live, shop, drive and work, then you can become a commodity like real estate.

Recently, PCWorld offered an article that explained why Google's latest location-based feature for mobile devices, which went live recently, will make it easier to find restaurants, bars, ATMs and more when you're in an unfamiliar area. Called "Near Me Now," this tool is available on the Google homepage on your iPhone (OS 3.0 or later) and Android (OS 2.0.1 or later) devices, but only to U.S. users at the moment.

To use this Google tool, you must allow Google to identify your location. In the article, the author states that "Google is not entirely clear on what this means, but I assume the search giant is talking about enabling its My Location feature." This latter feature uses cell towers to locate users rather than GPS (Global Positioning System). In other words, while the cell tower approach is not as accurate as GPS, Google still can know which general neighbourhood you are in at any given time "within about 1000 meters."

I don't know about you, but there are many friends and relatives I try to avoid at all costs. Why am I allowing a complete stranger – let alone a corporate entity – know my location?

Is Google Following You, and – if so – Why?

Later this year, PCWorld questioned location tracking software and began to wonder if this type of software and voluntary activity really is all that good for ordinary citizens. The question occurred when Dan Tynan discovered that iGoogle "gadgets can change / spoof their titles, or even make misleading ones. Someone could write a bad gadget and title it "Good Gadget" or "Gmail" or something else that you trust to try to trick you into revealing your location. The gadget could even re-write its title very quickly to pretend to be a different gadget on your iGoogle page."

In sum, the author now assumes that gadgets showing up in your iGoogle home page cannot be trusted. "If they can be spoofed, presumably they can also be used to capture your personal information -- your Google log-ons, Gmail, Google Calendar, and of course, your physical location. A perfect one-stop tool for stalkers, spearphishers, and cat burglars. Nice."

Yes, very nice, especially when I think about my daughter or mother or other people I care about.

The following feature is purely for advertising, so Google knows how to serve up adds for you based upon your location. But, if certain features can be spoofed or hacked, how do you know that you are completely safe? And, again, why are we trusting corporate entities with our locations?

To Be Totally Private, You Need to Ditch Cell Phone in U.S.

A recent IT World article explains why location privacy is important. One issue involves a business that collects  location data and then goes out of business or is acquired. At that point, any agreement you had with the initial company becomes moot. And, it appears that when Internet companies go out of business, their data often is their only "tangible, valuable asset."

What if that information is sold to your health insurance company? What if a your boss gets his or her hands on the information? In one case, the author describes how four NYC cops got fired for being clocked in at work in Manhattan when they were actually at home in New Jersey. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) E-ZPass data was how they got caught.

But, if you really want to hide from location devices (at least in the U.S.), you really need to stop logging locations on your cell phone – taking us back to that ubiquitous cell tower again. According to the Department of Justice (DoJ), if you use a cell phone, you essentially have "no right to privacy" for the tracking information being logged on your mobile phone, because the DoJ says this information is voluntarily disclosed. "Thus, [the user] assumes the risk that his cell-site usage may be disclosed to law enforcement."

Here are several examples of these location software tools and apps:

  • GeoClue: This tool aims to enable integration of location-aware technologies in Linux desktop applications.
  • Google Latitude: Use this geo-locator on your computer or phone or both with a photo so people can recognize you if they are looking for you.
  • Gowalla: A popular iPhone app that lets people broadcast their locations, find friends, and compete to see who's shown up somewhere the most.
  • Foursquare:  You can go exploring, much like Lewis and Clark and bombard everyone with your location and your status on Foursquare. I mean, everyone.
  • Quova: One of several "geo-location" software companies that let Web sites know where users are geographically.
  • Yelp: An example of a "soft" location finder, which puts you in a specific location as you visit or wander around your own neighbourhood.

The Center for Democracy and Technology states, "And just to round things out, the Justice Department offers up this no muss, no fuss solution to this privacy quagmire: 'One who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone.'" Allow me to explain why they say this – I visited our local police dispatch recently and discovered that individuals in dispatch can find you simply when you use your mobile device – within seconds – if they know your number and especially when you call dispatch directly from your mobile device. Seconds – that's all it takes.

If you don't want big government or corporate entities to know where you live or if you don't want them to know about your daily routine, you might think about backing off some social media as well as the tools that use those networks. You may also ponder a few things like liberty, freedom, and use a bit of healthy doubt about how the world is turning right now to contemplate your future use of these tools.

Linda Goin

Linda GoinLinda Goin carries an A.A. in graphic design, a B.F.A. in visual communications with a minor in business and marketing and an M.A. in American History with a minor in the Reformation. While the latter degree doesn't seem to fit with the first two educational experiences, Linda used her 25-year design expertise on archaeological digs and in the study of material culture. Now she uses her education and experiences in social media experiments.

Accolades for her work include fifteen first-place Colorado Press Association awards, numerous fine art and graphic design awards, and interviews about content development with The Wall St. Journal, Chicago Tribune, Psychology Today, and L.A. Times.

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