Whose Data Is It Anyway?

This might be the year we all broke Twitter.

This might be the year we all broke Twitter. When racist trolls force an African-American actress to leave the network and hundreds of journalists get anti-Semitic death threats on the platform, it’s time once again to re-examine the tension between liberty and protection of citizens.

On the other hand, when the police patrol Twitter looking for criminal activity, that raises red flags, as well.

While Twitter hasn’t been able to do much about rampant racism, it has been firm with law enforcement about perceived snooping. Most recently, after an American Civil Liberties Union report accused surveillance startup GeoFeedia of “spying,” Twitter and Facebook cut off GeoFeedia’s data stream.

This is a tough one. The feeds that GeoFeedia was pulling from were actually public pipes from the social media brokers, so technically, if you had a lot of time and energy, you could go get this information from the social media sites anyway.

Although there’s nothing really wrong with GeoFeedia parsing the data, it feels creepy–and that’s bad for business.

Privacy vs. convenience

Consumers are often willing to trade privacy for convenience provided they get something back. Many people happily give up their data to Google Maps. In exchange, they get accurate traffic information that can save them many hours over the course of a year.

Google literally knows exactly where you are going, and it can tie it all together because you log in with your Gmail ID. The company can then cross-reference that behavior to your activity online and likely even predict where you are headed next. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most Americans are fine with this arrangement. If not, we can opt out.

So why isn’t the ACLU going after Google? Because consumers aren’t complaining about it. In the case of GeoFeedia, consumers were complaining about an overarching “creep factor.” Consumers also got little out of the deal.

If consumers had been able to bargain, things might have turned out differently. GeoFeedia’s use case was primarily centered on location. The ACLU is not arguing that you can’t duplicate such behavior with other systems. Other general-purpose social media tools mimic GeoFeedia’s level of access but serve a different purpose. The data is out there.

If someone didn’t want to be found, they would be unlikely to post on public social media sites. They also wouldn’t allow geotagging. Some rely on putting as much info out there as possible–including geotagging–in order to bolster their positions as social media influencers.

While such influencers were unlikely to care about GeoFeedia’s snooping, the average user wanted something in return. Preventing crimes is an abstract concept compared with saving time in traffic. There’s no tangible value for the consumer because it’s hard to demonstrate that social media listening would thwart a crime that would have directly affected that user. It might have, but we just don’t know. In this situation, the value proposition wasn’t clear.

Since Twitter and Facebook are running for-profit businesses, the solution was obvious: Remove the cause of the complaint, because hardly any of your customers will miss it.

Devon Wijesinghe is CEO of influencer marketing solution Insightpool.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.