A new year, a new approach to privacy?

Do you think that personal information is a fair price to pay for free access – or do social media sites like Facebook take user privacy for granted? 

By the end of 2011, social media had become a mainstream utility rather than the latest “it” trend. Social media has matured, presenting unique challenges for both marketers and regulatory bodies in New Zealand in 2012.

Both in New Zealand and overseas, legislation has struggled to keep up with the rapidly evolving world of social media. From Sony PlayStation’s major data breach to the News of the World phone hacking scandal and widespread concern surrounding Facebook’s changes, privacy was a hot topic in 2011.

In 2012, privacy needs be addressed in two ways; through reform to the Privacy Act 1993 and through individuals becoming more proactive.


Reforming New Zealand’s Privacy Act 

The Privacy Act 1993 (the Act) governs the way personal information is handled by both private and public sector agencies. Eighteen years have passed since its enactment during which a whole new online world has developed. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube plus hundreds of other social platforms were not in existence when the Act was drafted.

The Act is based around a set of information privacy principles that were intended to be technology neutral. For the large part this has worked and the Act’s guiding principles still remain relevant. The problem is that online and social media is not just a technological advancement – it is also a culture shift. Information about people can now be collected, stored and used in ways we never dreamed of.

Recently, the Law Commission reviewed the Act, tabling their report in Parliament in August 2011 – its recommendations can be read here.  In 2012, the Government will review this report and determine what changes should be implemented. Reform will need to balance individual privacy with other interests such as the free flow of information and the effectiveness of business.


Technology issues that reform will need to address:

  • Overseas information storage and cloud computing – When personal data is stored overseas how are the privacy rights of New Zealanders protected and enforced?  The current Act extends the responsibility of companies to protect personal data stored overseas but will likely need to address cloud computing specifically.
  • Data breaches – The Act was written in a time when data was primarily stored offline making it far easier to protect. It is currently voluntary to disclose data breaches. But as digital information is more vulnerable, the law needs to make disclosing significant data breaches mandatory.
  • Facial recognition – In 2011, Facebook and Google+ both introduced tools allowing users to identify people in photos using facial recognition. This area is set to bring the biggest challenges to privacy rights in the future. The boundaries for how this technology can be used will be tricky and personal privacy will need to be weighed against societal improvements such crime reduction through ‘total surveillance’ and improving customs processes.


The real price of “free” access? 

“Last year, it cost over a billion dollars to run Facebook but thanks to advertisers, it’s free for you to use.” ~ Facebook via The Atlantic Wire 

In 2011, Facebook was criticised for a number of changes to user privacy settings and it’s own privacy policy. For the first time it was clear that Facebook was able and very willing to change it’s privacy rules. Changes included the introduction of sponsored stories in news feeds and reducing the permissions needed for applications. While apps were previously required to gain permission each time they posted to your wall, now they only need to ask once when the initial authorisation is granted. It’s more important then ever to read the permission screen before approving apps!


Is our personal information the price of free access?

Facebook’s changes favoured advertisers and generated widespread privacy concerns in 2011. But we pay nothing to use social networks like Facebook, so they rely on advertising revenue. Ad-supported models are widely used as ads are seen as a fair premium for access. But there is ‘no such thing as a free lunch’ and the true price we pay to use networks is the exchange of our personal information, often so advertisers can better target us. In 2012, regulations must address how data can be used and whether advertisers will be allowed to build individual footprints of consumers based on their online activities.


The New Year’s privacy challenge 

I’m not against openness online but I think it’s important to be informed on how our personal data is collected, stored, used and shared. According to a recent Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities survey, our concerns over privacy don’t translate into actions. While 55% of respondents said they would leave a social network if it used their information in an ‘unexpected’ way,  around 65% of respondents admitted that they hadn’t read the privacy policies or terms and conditions of the sites they used.

So here’s my challenge to you for the New Year; take a look at your social media account’s app pages and check what is currently authorised. There may be some surprises. As a relatively cautious Facebook user, I was surprised that I had granted permission to 44 apps. I was able to remove 29 of these immediately, they provide no value but continue to have access to my account (did I really authorise the “what was I in a previous life” app?!?). Facebook has yet to confirm whether apps authorised under their old privacy rules will automatically be able to post onto your wall or if they still need to ask your permission each time.

The easiest way I’ve found to check what permissions you have granted on social networks is through the site mypermissions.org

[Photo Source]

Editor in Chief at here SMNZ, I have a passion for social and digital media. When not writing and managing SMNZ I am the Head of Innovation at TAG The Agency, a digital ad agency and the Head of Sales and Marketing for End-Game, a software development agency. I'm also involved with a number of startups and I am always keen to support those that are bold enough to give things a go. Start something, better to try than to live wondering what if...


  1. Kaleb Reply

    Facebook and other social media platforms will fight dirty to maintain control of your personal details.

    Information is power and what is more powerful to advertisers than to know the intimate details of your target market?

    Targeted advertising is only going to get more acute. Think about how you fill in your profile – what information are you sharing. When you ‘like’ a page or piece of music etc, where do you think that information is going?

    Personally I don’t see a problem with targeted advertising as long as it is relevant to me. It’s a case of pros vs cons. In order to stay social I need to give certain details to the owners of the website, simple as that.

    1. Nicole Williams Reply

      Hey Kaleb – thanks for dropping by and posting some feedback

      I agree with your comments. Although as advertising/marketing people our views will of course be slightly more favourably towards targeted advertising!

      I will never forget a university lecturer telling us we were crazy for signing up to loyalty programs like Fly Buys because we were allowing them to learn so much about ouselves and our purchasing habits. And he was the lecturer for direct marketing! My reaction – who cares? Shouldn’t we want ads to be targeted – doesn’t that reduce the clutter and help us find products we are interested in?

      The issue of course are when this goes off track and this information is either compromised or sold to third parties and the relevance is diluted. It’s our information and ultimately we decide what and with who we share it.

      1. Kaleb

        Like any comms piece – the effectiveness will be seen in sales. Sure our details may be sold and ads will be targeted to us that how zero relevance. What’s going to happen is that resentment will grow, sales will drop and eventually the advertiser will have to re-evaluate their strategy.

        A shotgun approach isn’t going to work and is less effective than it’s ever been. Consumers have so much power these days that any resentment to the brand is spread rapidly across their network. And we all know that peer recommendations have a huge impact on what we think of a product regardless of whether we have encountered it before or not.

        So it behooves advertisers to get it right – the accuracy of today’s data is streets ahead of where it use to be, so much so that (weirdly enough) advertising may well be seen by the people who really want it.

        But ultimately what we share and where we share it is in our court.

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