Two words are increasingly surfacing in discussions of an internet that becomes more and more social each day: ‘privacy’ and ‘security’. The reason: the
social web seems to be increasingly eroding personal privacy and introducing new
online security concerns.

Many groups believe that something needs to be done, and it appears
that governments are starting to eye action of their own. But is it too
late?

It just might be. Despite the uproars over its privacy controls, for instance, Facebook continues to push for more ‘openness‘. When one considers that the company’s CEO reportedly doesn’t really believe privacy exists, it is clear that nothing short of a regulatory smackdown will give Facebook a change of heart.

Security is perhaps an even more complicated subject. Just this week, it was revealed that a flaw on Facebook exposed private chats. But as the ‘oversharing‘ that frequently takes place on the social web extends into new areas like finance, security issues are impacting information that has inherent economic value, as we saw with the recent Blippy breach.

While it would be nice to believe that there are easy solutions to the privacy and security challenges the social web is creating. Unfortunately, that’s probably not the case for a number of reasons:

  • No application is perfect. Facebook arguably employs some of the best engineers in Silicon Valley, yet that hasn’t stopped a number of embarrassing security bugs from creeping into the Facebook application. The reality is that any large application is going to have bugs, and the best engineers and most rigorous QA standards aren’t going to change that.
  • The volume of information increases the likelihood some of it will be exposed unwittingly. As more and more information is shared on the social web by more and more people, it follows that the mathematical odds of some of it finding its way out into the open (intentionally or unintentionally) will increase. In addition, any breaches will naturally have the potential to expose greater amounts of it.

In short, the social web can’t fight nature or statistics. The applications that power the social web, like all applications, will have flaws, and those flaws will affect greater and greater amounts of information. Some of that information will be quite sensitive, or of significant economic value. In my opinion, it’s foolish to pretend that privacy and security can somehow be guaranteed on the social web. They can’t. But that’s actually a good thing.

Eventually, ‘average users‘ will become more aware of the risks present on the social web. And they’ll find ways to address those risks. Some might quit services altogether, while others will instead try to find ways to mitigate the risks that concern them the most.

For companies that are active on the social web, with smarter users will come greater challenges. Users will evaluate privacy and security risks by asking a simple question: in sharing this piece of information, am I getting back more than I’m giving up? The good news is that in making sure users can answer ‘yes!‘ to that question, companies competing on the social web have to innovate and build more useful and entertaining products.

From this perspective, those who are worried about the implications of ‘oversharing‘ online might want to consider that the ‘problems‘ of privacy and security on the social web just might be the solutions.

Photo credit: rpongsaj via Flickr.