The Societal Benefits of Data Sharing

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Web crawlers young and old enjoy Facebook for a great many reasons, among them the ability to update pals on their emotional status and the platform to share their all-encompassing appreciation of Rick Springfield's oeuvre. But as the site surpasses the phenomenon phase on its way to cultural/technological ubiquity, it's fair to ask: What does Facebook's popularity say about our willingness to broadcast all sorts of personal data to a potential audience of millions? Does it mean that its 40 million or so members--that number could jump a few digits by the time you read this--have changed their big picture privacy settings, so to speak?

To hear a cross-section of privacy and data-protection pundits tell it, they have--and such changes are symptomatic of a fundamental shift away from the caution that characterized earlier social-networking interactions. The ultimate beneficiary of this: society as a whole.

Only recently have the academic, legal and privacy communities started to acknowledge a social benefit to data sharing of the magnitude seen on social-networking sites. While most caution that quantifying the benefit remains impossible, they believe that individuals who frequent those sites do gain personally and professionally.

"For individuals, the value of sharing personal information or insights is that they have stronger, deeper relationships within their communities," says Marty Abrams, executive director of the Centre for Information Policy Leadership at law firm Hunton & Williams. "They can share their joys or frustrations very quickly. That has value on an individual level and on a community one."

What surprises privacy experts most is the speed and ease with which social networkers have shed their inhibitions. Technology had a little something to do with this, notes Dr. Ravi Sandhu, executive director of the Institute for Cyber Security at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who says that before the arrival of new, interactive technologies, "You couldn't publish your own personal newsletter and social norms were in favor of keeping things private." Once the enabling technologies increased in sophistication and functionality, however, the reluctance to share personal data evaporated in a hurry.

Sandhu likens the current evolution--both in terms of technology/privacy and our attitudes towards it-- to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. "For a while, there were very few inhibitions and people did extremely risky things. That's where we are now with sharing information," he explains. "Over time, people learned, 'Hey, this is not risk-free.' At first the freedom was attractive, but then everybody realized the risks."

The risks, as anybody who's ever viewed an hysterical local-newscast segment on MySpace predators, aren't too hard to glean. The more information one shares, the more that would-be con artists, predators and other hostile elements have to work with. But while such risks have been framed within the context of identity theft and other financial-related crimes, nobody is exactly sure of the problems that excessive information-sharing on social-networking sites could create.

In the most obvious example, if an underage college student posts a photo of him and his roommate indulging in a few after-class beverages, the student impacts not only his own privacy but also that of his roommate. Yes, this could come up in a job interview down the road, but it could well resonate beyond that.

"We live in an age of information permanence," says Linda Criddle, a former online safety advocate for Microsoft who recently founded her own safety/privacy consultancy, Look Both Ways. "We now have all these environments that are conducive to pouring out your heart in a way that you might find horrifying down the road."

Criddle is one of the few pundits who disputes the social value of sharing data online, believing that nuance is more often than not a casualty of such efforts.

"Sharing my feelings and interests with people across the country--I don't see value in that, because it's very skewed," she notes. "The types of information people choose to share may or may not really reflect who they are. You have kids acting out in extreme ways that they'd never do offline. When you talk with somebody in person, you can judge tone and expression. Online, everything comes out more bombastic."

Jim Crabbe, chief executive officer and co-founder of business social-networking site, counters that online data sharing has the same value as the "real-world" data-sharing that preceded it.

"There's always been a social value," he says. "Most of us end up where we are in life based on connections, accidental meetings, things like that. We blunder through our relationships and choose some opportunities over others. That's how it always worked before and that's not going to change in the online world."

What might change is the efficiency of communication. In a world in which society values every last nugget of data shared online (and off), holdouts will have to get with the program or risk ceding personal and professional opportunities to those who already have. Abrams, quick to crack that he is "not of the Facebook generation," acknowledges social networking as "sort of another continuing piece of the communication puzzle" but adds that "there's still etiquette to be learned, processes to be played out." Only then, he suggests, will the true value of information sharing become manifestly evident.

Sandhu, on the other hand, wonders if there might be some pullback before too long. In terms of information sharing, he says, "This current generation has gone far beyond where their parents would ever consider going. Maybe you'll see the next generation be a little wiser about it, think a little bit more before they dive in."

Perhaps, as Criddle suggests, that generation will come to view what happened to individuals like "Bristol Palin's baby daddy, who never imagined that the information he shared would be plastered on the front page of the New York Times' Web site," as a cautionary tale.

"Will it be '15 minutes of fame and many years of shame'?" she asks. "There's a lot left to shake out before anybody's going to know for sure."