Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Public Servants: What are you broadcasting via social media?

It seem we're regularly being served additional reminders about the way we sometimes use social messaging to our detriment, and with increasing frequency, how it is sometimes being used against us.

Consider the Janine Krieber kerfuffle, where the wife of former Canadian Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion criticized the current state of the party in a Facebook entry. The post was subsequently deleted, but copies still exist (like this English translation).

Then there's Nathalie Blanchard, a Montreal woman who was on long-term disability leave due to major depression. Her benefits were suspended when Manulife (her insurance company) obtained Facebook photos of her smiling and frolicking on vacation.

We should know better.

I have a cartoon on the wall of my workstation: a postcard from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. A wife is talking to her husband and says, "Of course I value my privacy... that's why I only share my personal information with 700 of my closest friends!"

Before quitting Facebook (due to privacy concerns) I had less than 50 Facebook contacts comprised of friends and family, so for me the joke here is partially in the hyperbole. But for many people, the humour is fully in the truth of the statement: the cavalier way that too many of us share personal details with anyone who requests to be added to our stable of friends. For what purpose? To have a bigger, more impressive looking list? To fool others — or ourselves — that we have more professional contacts than we really do? I don't know. For the record, Ms. Blanchard reports that she has 500 people in her Facebook friend list.

When the incorporation of Twitter data into search engines owned by Microsoft and Google was imminent, I posted news links on my privacy news blog (now @cproundup) and tweeted a warning to my professional network. Not long after, I read that Yahoo was also entering the Tweet harvesting business, but will go one step further than its rivals by including tweets in its main search results.

It all makes me wonder... Are we actually seriously considering the possible implications of the personal information we release, and how it will be used, or are we too confident that embarrassment and scandal is something that only happens to other people? As public servants, are we endangering ourselves when we post notifications on Twitter about speeding tickets and moving violations, or consistently make passive/indirect partisan criticism? Are we blogging about intensely personal subjects: things that with additional consideration we'd choose not be associated with our identities as government employees? And (as I witnessed fairly recently) are we tweeting our doubts about the wisdom of having posted potentially embarrassing information, thereby drawing attention back to things that shouldn't have been mentioned in the first place?

I've seen a lot of questionable disclosures from and among public servants, and I'm concerned.

In her annual report, Canadian Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddard remarked how Web 2.0 technologies are encompassing daily life, and how youth have an extremely casual approach to privacy. Their short-term view of the future may well leave them with a lot to be embarrassed about in 10 or 20 years, when their pictures, YouTube videos, and blog entries continue to exist on file servers around the globe.

Can the same be said of public servants, who may not consistently give full consideration as to how certain information might harm them? Granted, the risk is low while we remain deeply buried in the organization. But what if we rise up and into the public eye, inside the government or beyond?

While it's great to be out there — communicative, accessible, and interactive — there are limits. What we do is noticed, and it's up to each of us to actively consider what our limits are.

Kinda makes me want to review my own tweet history and old blog entries, just to make sure I haven't posted anything I'd rather not be archived forever.