Nosy Neighbors, Google, and Your Flawed Data Set

I was having coffee with a friend of mine recently. She’s a Human Resources professional who, like myself, is immersed in social media. So of course that becomes an eventual topic of discussion. She informed me that she’s decreased her online activity; she now does more lurking and engages less. This was for two reasons. One, her life has gotten busier, which is understandable. The second was because of the fact that she now works for a more conservative company. While they didn’t spell out that she couldn’t be online, they made it clear that they view social media as a risky proposition. The interesting part was that her co-workers informed her that she should continue with her social media activities, as the company doesn’t check on its employees. Still, she didn’t want any misconceptions on the part of her employer, should they run across her online body of work. As she put it, she didn’t feel comfortable “going behind their back.” 

On a separate yet related note, today Google has updated its privacy policy. Whereas it used to be that each service (Gmail, Google+, YouTube, etc.) had their own respective policies, the company has integrated them. Google believes that this will enhance its offering to its users. Sharing information across its services, they argue, will allow for a more customized user experience. Privacy advocates argue that it erodes peoples ability to opt out. Advocates also claim that Google has failed to accurately describe how it will collect personal data and its potential impact.

It’s been interesting to read comments about the Google update. I believe that most people, whether right or wrong, are fairly comfortable with the change. What struck me were some comments which questioned why people would object to it in the first place. In their minds your personal data was the price you had to pay for access to its services. There shouldn’t be an expectation of privacy within that arrangement. I’m not comfortable with that sentiment. 

First, let me say that I don’t view the concept of privacy as black or white. I don’t believe that there ever was true privacy. If and when people wanted to know something about you there were ways to find out. For example, as a kid I distinctly remember being frustrated by the fact that my mother always knew when and what type of trouble I had gotten into at any given time. This was in spite of the fact that she worked full time outside of the home. I was also a latch key kid; I didn’t have a babysitter or required adult supervision. I took care of my own needs until she came home from work. How then did she always know what I was up to?

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that she had her own personal “search engine,” which were my neighbors. Their observations of, and communications to my mother around, my activities gave her all the intelligence she needed to keep me out of major trouble and focused on what she believed were the things that mattered. Often unseen and unknown (at least by me), my neighbors nevertheless had an impact on my life. I quickly realized that there were things I could or could not do without there being repercussions. 

This debate then, for me, is less about what Google should or should not have access to–it’s about intent. My neighbor’s intent wasn’t to see me punished, it was to keep me out of trouble. As someone who spends a significant amount of time online, I have to be concerned about how my information is being processed and most importantly, perceived by those collecting it. What is their intent? 

Google probably isn’t interested in my information, in and of itself. But recruiters might, as well as potential business partners and a host of others. I understand that their intent is to get a sense of who I am. Am I a viable candidate? Are there any red flags that pop up? Will he do a Charlie Sheen? Can he be an advocate for me? The concern I, and my coffee partner, have is that someone’s online presence is being used to paint a complete picture of an individual. Because it doesn’t.

Part of what made my mother’s network such a powerful influence on me was that my neighbor’s spoke to my mother. Through their initial and ongoing conversations they became aligned around the same goal: to keep me safe. The intent of my colleague’s company, should they decide to do so, is probably to look for risky online behavior from its employees. Those intentions can and does drive what information is gathered and how it’s interpreted.

“There’s more to truth than just the facts.”–Author unknown

Google and other online mediums don’t speak for anyone; they are not aligned around anyone’s goals except their own. Part of what they do is gather and present data. We may think that data is the same as insight but it’s not. With that in mind I would caution anyone using personal data as their sole means of comprehending an individual.

Since becoming active in social media, I’ve aligned my web presence around my objectives. I would strongly advise others to do the same if they wish to avoid confusion from outside observers. Whether it’s updating your security settings or deleting unused or underutilized accounts, you should make sure that your online persona is presentable. 

For those using this data to get a better measure of someone (e.g., recruiters) I would suggest only doing so if it’s truly necessary. What is your intent–is it to find dirt or gold? If you had to justify your actions in a court of law, could you? Otherwise, you may do better by gathering relevant information from more trusted and direct sources. Perhaps if you asked the neighbors, or the person’s mother, you might get the answers you seek.

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