Tackling Privacy Gets Tougher As Social Networks Add New Services

With social networks storing already massive amounts of personal and business data, the introduction of new real-time and location based services – such as Foursquare and Facebook Places – means that the privacy challenges faced by social network providers and users alike will become even more serious.

Whilst social network operators attempt to provide an enhanced yet secure user experience, as well as reaping the business benefits for third parties such as advertisers and brands, user concern over exactly what, where and who their data is available to is growing.

Users are experiencing an alarming loss of control over their personal data. Many people are not aware who can see their data and what information can be derived about them. Privacy by default’ is not common in social networks; often it is cumbersome for users to configure the system if they want to protect their data.

In the future I expect to see decentralised social networks with multiple providers and user-controlled identity management, i.e. different partial identities in different contexts, perhaps in different social networks, that can be managed via one convenient interface.

Johannes Mainusch, Vice President Operations at Germany’s largest business-focused social network, XING, adds: “Social networking is about communication; how we interact and what we share – this is based on trust. In the business context, there is a lot of sensitive information both for companies and for professionals – from an employee not wanting his boss to know he’s looking for a new job, to protecting business secrets. Our primary goal is to provide a platform that our 9.6 million users trust and enjoy using, but offers security and high performance at the same time. Social networks must be prepared to deliver means for privacy or the users will leave.”

In Germany, the Federal Data Protection Act has recently been revised to state that personal data disclosed by employees in non-business social networks must not be used by the employer. Similarly, 22 million social network accounts in Germany benefit from a code of conduct from the FSM, a registered association founded by e-commerce alliances and companies dedicated to the protection of the youth and minors.

Sabine Frank, Managing Director of Voluntary Self-Control Multimedia Service Providers (FSM), underlines that industry should be aware and in fact often is aware of its responsibility, which is the basis to create a secure environment for the users of social networks. Frank comments: “Users of social media should use the possible features within this environment in a self-empowered way. Security settings and precautions on the networks are very different and the privacy of users is thereby protected differently. It should be a goal, that it also becomes a selection criterion for users how well their private data is handled within the network.”

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Marit Hansen is Deputy Privacy & Information Commissioner of Land Schleswig-Holstein and Deputy Chief of Unabhaengiges Landeszentrum fuer Datenschutz (ULD). Within ULD she is in charge of the "Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PET)" Division and the "Innovation Centre Privacy & Security". Since her diploma in computer science in 1995 she has been working on security and privacy aspects especially concerning anonymity, pseudonymity, identity management, biometrics, multilateral security, and e-privacy from both the technical and the legal perspectives. In several projects she and her team actively participate in technology design in order to support PET and give feedback on legislation.