Letter to the Editor: Social media exploitation is gravest risk

Stephen had a long letter to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald, on the grave privacy risks posed by social media.

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Social media exploitation is gravest risk

Sydney Morning Herald, March 5, 2012.

It was great to see a measured article about online privacy (“Nothing sacred in online grab for data”, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3-4). Instead of sensationalising the odd indiscretion by hapless Facebook users, the article correctly identifies the underhanded commercial exploitation of personal information as the gravest risk.

There is a grossly unfair bargain at the heart of most social media. They give us cool apps like photo tagging and speech recognition, and in return we unwittingly provide them with gold like our address books.

It’s bad enough that contacts are taken from our phones without consent but the real treasure is even more subtle. With face recognition algorithms (calibrated by users every time they tag a friend) Facebook can work out what we’re doing, when, where and with whom. It’s privatised surveillance on an unprecedented scale. And courtesy of their free personal assistant “Siri”, Apple acquires the contents of dictated text messages and emails – personal information that not even telephone companies are privy to without a court order.

There is good news though. Australian privacy laws are well written to curb the excesses of the social media giants. Every time Facebook receives a tag suggestion, or Apple stores an SMS, or Google keeps a search query, they are committing an act of ”collection” according to the Commonwealth Privacy Act 1988. Moreover, every time these innovative companies create brand new information about us, they are also making a collection. Our Privacy Act doesn’t much care where personal information comes from; once a company has it, they need to show they have a real need to keep it, and they are obligated to be transparent.

Some types of personal information such as health data cannot be collected at all without prior consent. So if a department store here was to deduce someone was pregnant and use that information to “capture them for years” as customers, they could well be in breach of the law.

It’s not too late for people to regain their privacy. In jurisdictions like ours, the big “infomopolies” have long sailed close to the wind.

We only need the determination now to uncover the depth of their exploitation and to enforce our existing legal rights.

Stephen Wilson
Five Dock