Forget abortion, same sex marriage, or taxes, the political controversy of the next decade will be social data privacy. Data privacy has been a “managed” issue for years. Companies like Symantec and EMC have been delivering solutions to corporations to help “control” the issue.  There are firms that specialize in identity theft and credit card companies have gotten very sophisticated with analyzing big data to detect and combat fraud. There are organizations like the Data Protection Directive and EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) that are educating and fighting for privacy protection.

This is all great, but it won’t help individuals with social data privacy.

We have entered the age of digital transparency and not everyone is happy about it. Europe has already waged a war to protect its citizen’s ‘right to be forgotten’. I’m sorry to say, they’ll lose ‘Round 1’ because today, it’s just not technically possible.  If you participate in a social network, there is no way to completely erase your data from the internet.  Take some of the points raised in this article from Gigaom:

  • When you have a photo on a social network that features multiple people, “who gets to decide if and when the photo should be forgotten?”
  • The internet is not a closed system, and it spans multiple jurisdictions. “Enforcing the right to be forgotten is impossible in an open, global system, in general.”
  • “Unauthorized copying of information by human observers is ultimately impossible to prevent by technical means.”
  • You could try DRMing all data, but these things can be bypassed, and people wouldn’t like it.

And all of those points are regarding those of us who have been using social networks for less than a decade.  What about when today’s children grow up and decide they want to erase their digital data?  A recent AVG study revealed that 92 percent of children under the age of 2 already have “digital shadows.” The volume and complexity of this task is overwhelming.

When you think about it (while relaxing on your couch watching TV and Tweeting), there are 3 paths we as a society can take to address this growing issue:

  1. Political Battle: We spend billions of dollars and lose decades politically as we work to create laws that ultimately won’t fully protect people’s privacy and can’t be applied globally.
  2. Hope for Innovation: We hang our hopes on some brilliant engineer coming up with a way to protect people’s privacy in social networking (be wary of anyone who says this is possible, but if it’s real, invest early!) .
  3. Be Smart in Social: We come to terms with the new era of digital transparency and use social networks wisely.

Of course, astute readers may point out that there is a fourth option whereby we stop using social networks altogether.  While an interesting thought, I don’t see that happening (unless the world loses power as NBC portrays in the television show Revolution).

Personally, I’m following path #3.  After all, it’s the only one I can control. Here are some things I do to ‘socialize safely’:

  • I don’t put anything in social media that I wouldn’t want an employer to see (duh).
  • I own my name domain ( so that no one else can use it nefariously.
    • Note: I’ve also purchased the domains for my kid’s names!
    • I keep personal contact information out of my social profiles – if someone I don’t know wants to get ahold of me, they can mention me in Twitter or request a connection in LinkedIn.
    • I don’t “check-in”.  I can see where this might have been useful in college days to find the best fraternity party.  In my post-college life, there is no reason for anyone to need to know where I am.

I’d love to hear what best practices you have for using social media safely.

Here are just a few of the recent news stories on this growing issue that inspired this post:
Reuters: US Fails to Win Early Limit on Net Controls at Global Gathering
FierceBigData: The UN takes up Internet regulation, privacy while IAPP discusses big data
Gigaom: Why Big Data Could Sink Europe’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten’
Slashdot: Why Big Data Could Sink Europe’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten’