5 'Dark Social' Concerns For Online Leadership

Last week I was running a training session for one of my IT industry clients on how to use LinkedIn for strategic social selling. "No thanks; I don't use LinkedIn" said an uber-intelligent pre-sales solutions architect as I was rounding-up the team to get them intothe boardroom. As someone reached over and lifted my jaw shut, he continued in response to my dumbfounded expression... "Seriously, I don't want my personal meta-data being harvested and being used in ways I don't authorize."

Wow; I'd always thought everyone had decided that resistance was futile and that assimilation into the collective was inevitable. This week I had a coffee with the resistor and, after assuring him he would remain anonymous, I listened to his very valid concerns.

As a professional, Google and LinkedIn are his main concerns and here are his main ones:

  1. He can lose control and ownership of his content.
  2. His data can be used in ways in which he does not approve.
  3. He can be profiled using meta-data (data about activity and content. eg; the IP address of a computer or the location of a device) without his consent.
  4. He will be blasted with advertising in ways he does not like.
  5. He will be approached by people he does not want in his life.

What is 'dark social'? I define it as the unwanted consequences of our content and meta data being aggregated and analyzed for reasons we do not understand and have not authorized.

Corporations and governments are both actively engaged in the process of tracking and profiling users of the interweb. Have you ever browsed looking for a particular car to buy or retail item only to have advertisement for these exact things then pop up all the time?

Facebook famously lured business and communities into their world to build groups only later to turn these into money-making walled gardens where business needed to pay for access and members are bombarded with advertising.  Google is the most powerful meta-data harvester in the world for profiling individuals and predicatively pushing paid [advertising] content at them. LinkedIn is now embarking on a similar journey with feeds becoming cluttered with paid content. Mobility, wearables, proximity beacons, the ubiquity of GPS, the internet of things... it all driving it to a new level. We won't even discuss Artificial Intelligence but imagine IBM's Watson super computer working with Google to digitally profile individuals.

You may think that the commercial gathering of our data is limited tospamming annoyance but Marc Goodman has written a provokative book, Future Crime, which highlights a sinister end-game where everything is connected; and in ways that we can neither imagine or manage.

People tend to create a persona on different platforms (my business life on LinkedIn, my family life on Facebook, My party social life is on Instagram or Snapchat, My political views on Twitter). But although these separate personas reside on different platforms, the APIs and web services provide points of external data harvesting.

Big data analytics can join the dots (URLs) and build a very complete picture on an individual past and an accurate predictive picture of their future. Medical, financial, behavioral, even political and religious views. Forget age or gender discrimination as a problem for the next generation; even now people are being rejected for employment because of their composite social profile... almost always without even being aware of the real reason they are so 'unlucky' when applying for jobs.

Have you ever read the terms and conditions of the social platform companies? Some are literally hundreds of pages long and in legal speak. Who really owns the content and data associated use of their platform? Instagram is a poignant example... millions of pictures in there and then Facebook acquires the company meaning that Facebook now owns hundreds of millions of photos which they can on-sell or use with advertizers.

Google started with search, then maps, then mobility with Android for free... they can now track you, scan all of your email content, search Google Docs, transcribeGoogle Voice, analyze Google+ content, etc.  I've been the regional VP for multi-national content management software vendors and I understand the latent power of content repositories... information transformed into intelligence is highly valuable. 

And then there is the Patriot Act which is currently under review but allows the United States Government to harvest anything within data centers on USA soil or in the overseas data centers of US corporations. What do they do with all this data you ask? They keep us safe because intelligence is the most powerful weapon against organized crime, fraud and terrorism. But the NSA facility in Utah is possibly the biggest data warehousing facility on Earth. It's been built on a scale that even Google envies. The computer cooling requirements alone for the mostly underground Utah facility consume almost 2,000,000 gallons of water every day... that's a huge amount of computing power being managed.

The power of all the social platforms being connected and the meta data (website tracking, timelines, social post activity, geo-location tracking, relationship mapping, etc.) being aggregated is Orwellian. The 'internet of things' creates huge amounts of data that can be harvested and hacked but no-one in business today can stay off the grid despite Minority Report style concerns.

Amazon are working on a Machine Learning service to be offered to developers deploying applications on their AWS infrastructure. It seems Scott McNealy was right when he said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Interestingly, a study by Pennsylvania University has revealed that most Americans have given up hope concerning the privacy of their data.

When I was young, the worst thing that happened at an office party was someone sitting on the photocopier, pantless... LOL and forgotten with the image fed into the shredder. Now every photo or inappropriate remark is tagged and uploaded to remain somewhere forever... nothing online is ever truly erased. Forget flushing your cache and deleting cookies... all that does is make you feel better... if you visit inappropriate websites... it's all being stored on servers somewhere.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Embrace technology and social because you cannot avoid a profile being created on you anyway. Positively and authentically manage your digital presence.
  2. Be VERY mindful of everything you post. Before you upload that photo, imagine your mother and boss will see it! True story: A friend of my daughter ditched school in Sydney and caught a train to the city with her partner in crime. They took photos and uploaded them to Snapchat to impress their friends, then they quickly removed them... but others had screenshot the images. The evidence burnt them. Everything uploaded or done online is recorded forever.
  3. Live your life on social platforms and the internet like you do in the real world. Be an authentic person. Online violence and porn desensitizes you and makes you a lesser person. Endless hours of mindless crap reduces your IQ. Instead, the internet can be wonderful with all of its libraries, TED videos, creative thinking, ideas and connections to people that can change the world for the better.
  4. Be hyper security conscious. Always check the URL if you click a link to take you to your bank, Gmail, or anywhere else.

Hacking is a far greater problem than how our data is used by our authorized platform providers. Anthem is a health insurer in the USA who was hacked resulting in 80 million people's private medical records exposed. As a footnote... the internet is increasingly becoming encrypted which is helping to make data more secure BUT those who control the encryption algorithms will hold the power.

We live in amazing brave new world... one in which we need to trust those with whom we engage.

Footnote: Techopedia defines dark social differently here.

If you valued this article, please hit the ‘like' and ‘share’ buttons below. This article was originally published in LinkedIn here where you can comment. Also follow the award winning LinkedIn blog here or visit Tony’s leadership blog at his keynote speaker website: www.TonyHughes.com.au.

Main image photo by Flickr: Roberto Rizzato EMOtion!