I thought Scott McNealy was over the top when he gave privacy a metaphorical middle finger in 1999, saying, "Get over it. You have zero privacy anyway." Now I'm thinking the former CEO of Sun Microsystems was simply ahead of his time.
I just returned from Demo Spring 2010, a technology forum for hot young startups that usually reminds me of why I love covering our industry. But Social Sentry, a new product shown at Demo by a company called Teneros, is frightening and represents a threat to privacy and the open use of social networking. The scary application reminded me that technology does have a dark side.
If it works as advertised, Social Sentry will allow employers to track the use of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many other social networking sites by their employees -- even when they post from the so-called privacy of their homes or mobile devices. What's more, the software can make a link between different accounts and different user names. So if I tweet under the name InfoBill and have different handles on LinkedIn and Facebook, Social Sentry will eventually identify me on all three.
It's one thing to monitor communications from within the corporate network; that's settled law and employees do not have what attorneys call "a reasonable expectation of privacy" when they use company equipment at work. (However, companies don't necessarily have the right to monitor messages you send from work from your personal email account via Webmail.) And employers are rightly concerned about the leaking of corporate secrets such as financial results during a quiet period or the content of personnel files.
But just because someone might commit a breach of corporate security, employers have no more moral right to snoop than the police have to kick down your door without a warrant because you might commit a crime in the future.
Connecting (your) dots
Social Sentry has at least one weakness you should know about: It needs to make an initial link between an employee and a social networking handle. That happens when the employee posts from work. If you've never posted on the network, Social Sentry can't identify you.
However, a motivated employer could use other tools to discover your social networking persona. Radian6, for example, appears to be gaining popularity with Web-savvy companies. It trolls social networking sites looking for references to products, brand names, and the like. It wouldn't be difficult for a nosy employer to combine Radian6 or a similar tool and discover an employee's private social networking activities.
To be fair, Teneros, whose main business is email continuity and the like, sees it differently. "We totally understand that people have concerns about privacy," says Christina Del Villar, a company spokeswoman. "The goal isn't to track everything employees are saying. [Social Sentry] is looking for specific information." (Here's a PDF file on how Teneros describes its product.)
Speaking hypothetically, Del Villar gave the example of Apple. In the period before the launch of the iPad, the company thought it important to keep the name of the product a secret. If it had been using Social Sentry, it could have searched on employee posts using the term "iPad" as a filter. Or if financial results were due to be released, a company could filter on "earnings per share" or "cash flow" to protect information that would, in fact, be illegal to release early.
Illegal or merely creepy?
I suspect that the kind of snooping enabled by Social Sentry is not illegal. Once you post something on the Internet, it is, by definition, public information. You can't expect it to be private, and you can be held liable for certain things that you say on the Web.
Sadly, a lot of young people have learned the hard way that posting suggestive photos or comments can get them in trouble very quickly. Once something is online, you can't take it back, even if it's deleted from the original source.
This blog is called "Tech's Bottom Line" for a reason. The market drives innovation, and I have great respect for the venture capitalists that have done so much to launch exciting new companies. Do they do it for the money? Of course, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I was disturbed, if not surprised, when I asked five high-powered venture capital guys on a Demo panel if they thought Social Sentry represented a good business opportunity. All said yes, and none expressed serious reservations about privacy.
Social Sentry is creepy -- and its potential business success cast a shadow over my otherwise energizing two days at Demo.