Privacy Pendulum: Addressing HR and Client Concerns

Timing is everything. I am often reminded of a company who ran into major financial issues after raising millions in venture capital during in 1990’s. Problems arose due to their early entry into location based advertising on cellphones, that users perceived then as invasive. Today, location based services are not only becoming the norm, but are also stimulating new ways to share information and fostering new applications to exploit these interests. People are sharing their private lives in attempts to increase communication and bonds with others without fully understanding the consequences of those actions.

Client Privacy

As with investment decision making, where the benefits have to out-way the costs, users follow the exact same logic when using services. Knowledge is power, as such privacy and knowledge management are one in the same, and if managed improperly could have huge personal and professional costs to users. Recently, the hacking into Sony Playstations and the big email marketing firm Epsilon have highlighted the importance of protecting users information when users choose to share it privately and publicly. One cannot talk about public exposure and privacy without mentioning Facebook.
Facebook is a prime example of of a social platform and service that helped others open their personal lives to anyone connected to their network. Even in Facebook’s initial years it underwent scrutiny for allowing public searches to access users profiles along with limited privacy controls that users could define themselves. Despite these privacy concerns, Facebook still adds on more detailed and personal information to its profiles. It does this by using Facebook Connect to link users with their online behaviour on the internet and through geotracking and recording by checking-in to locations. However, the question remains whether information sharing is on a swinging pendulum or if a new standard has been achieved.
Companies today have to be aware that users need to be informed of ways they can be empowered to control and mitigate the potential risks. Otherwise, users may backlash once unintended consequences occur, or if perceptions fall behind expectations. Facebook, in particular, pushes users’ boundaries in an attempt to raise the level of user comfort for information sharing. One can speculate that their efforts are focused on launching new services to expand their offerings and create high barriers to entry for competitors, since users themselves will have created their own high switching costs with their existing Facebook records and profile information. However, at times this has back-lashed with users, causing Facebook themselves to back away from attempts temporarily. Additionally, Facebook’s demise might be directly related to their growth strategy as users may swing the pendulum back the other way, migrating towards substitutes that give users direct control over their own data and which are not owned by a private for-profit company; Diaspora being one such example. The US government is also attempting to pass legislation that would protect users online from tracking of users’ browser history and behaviour, usually for CRM/marketing purposes, which would negatively affect Google and positively affect Facebook.

Coworker Privacy

Personal and professional lives used to be seamlessly integrated during humanities history, even defining someones last name by their profession. However, modern societies have started to create divisions between employees personal and professional lives in attempts to fine tune the work/life balance. Yet, despite these attempts, society is also transforming through open, transparent and connected ideals. The result pushes individuals to choose if they want to accept or reject these ideals through the use and adoption of technology. In particular is the issue of whether to adopt and engage in social networks, and to what degree can professional and personal networks merge?
Social media is entering the workplace and companies have chosen to embrace it or kill it. Those companies fearful of social networks usually view social networks as a waste of resource time, and adopt similar policies to separate personal and professional bonds. However, some companies also adopt social media to promote team building, company spirit and aid branding initiatives online. Ultimately, despite companies attempts, it comes down to how an individual chooses to brand themselves and includes personal social networks.
For one thing, if one chooses to show more intimate details of their personal life and thoughts then professional contacts should not be mixed with personal matters. However, if one censors aspects of their life on personal social networks, then professional networks can also be added to help strengthen the bond with those individuals. In the end, this censorship is not to hide aspects of one’s character or life, but rather to find a balance between what matters in businesses and personal relationships. Additionally, not everyone has the same understanding and tolerance on issues that friends may have, in comparison to acquaintances. The best example was the recent Twitter fiasco where football player Ryan Babel was fined for a personal Twitter comment, since it was regarded to reside in the public domain.
Managers can inform employees about the consequences and risks they run when adding and sharing information with coworkers, thus empowering them to make better decisions on their privacy and information sharing. Also, templates could be distributed on settings best to protect users if certain tools are adopted, such as Facebook settings for coworkers. Ultimately, a manager would hope that increased interaction and sharing among team members would facilitate improved production by fostering a workplace/company spirit, team building, greater trust and communication.

Pendulum’s Momentum

Allowing others into social circles enables individuals to acquire information; where this knowledge can be used to the benefit or harm of that individual. However, fear of releasing information can also lead to misinterpretations as others may feel that an individual is hiding information on purpose. Therefore, in today’s society, individuals need to be open enough to let others into their lives, yet careful not to expose too much. So which way is the pendulum swinging?
So far people are continuing to sign onto Facebook (145% increase in 2009 to 2010) and increase their use of social media platforms for both personal and professional uses. Moreover, users seem to be less concerned with how their information is accessed. From 2009 to 2005, Statistics Canada data showed a decrease from 36.6% to 32.6% in privacy concerns. However, users and coworkers are still discovering the risks and repercussions of nascent technologies and services; representing a changing privacy zeitgeist. As the old song by Bob Dylan goes “and the times… they are a changing.” For now, managers can try to better inform their clients and employees of the known risks and methods to mitigate those risks.