Why Social Media Will Never Offer True User Privacy

A pipe dream we’ll never reach

Key Takeaways

  • Online privacy continues to be on an upward trend, with many companies stepping up to offer more consumer-friendly privacy options.
  • Twitter is working on some other privacy focused features for its users to take advantage of.
  • Despite the release of these kinds of features, experts say true privacy isn't something we’re ever likely to see on social media.
person holding iPhone 6 with Twitter on it

Daddy Mohlala / Unsplash

Even with the release of more consumer-focused privacy features, experts say privacy always will be an issue on social media because there are too many variables involved with keeping your information and content from being shared.

Privacy continues to be a driving force in the tech industry. While big tech companies like Apple and Google continue to offer new features, social media sites like Twitter are taking a turn, too. The latter is working on more privacy-focused features and options for users, though experts say you never should post anything on social media that you aren’t comfortable with being shared. Even with privacy features, almost anything you post can be shared in some way, making it available to anyone online.

"There is no such thing as social media privacy, no matter what privacy settings are available, even if the social media company is trustworthy," Greg Scott, a cybersecurity expert who has authored multiple books around the subject, told Lifewire in an email. "Consider old-fashioned answering machines and voicemail. How many times have we seen leaked embarrassing voicemails in the news? We accept even more risk with social media posts."

Personal Responsibility

Scott says that while Twitter and other social media sites may offer private modes, and even the ability to "protect" your content, there’s no way to control how those you’ve entrusted to see it might share it down the line.

This is also an opinion shared by cybersecurity consultant Dave Hatter. "It’s a pipe dream," Hatter told us via email when asked about the future of privacy on social media. 

"There is no such thing as social media privacy, no matter what privacy settings are available, even if the social media company is trustworthy."

"If you post something that only ‘friends’ can see, any ‘friend’ can take a screenshot and do anything they want to with it," Hatter added. "Not to mention leaks by the platform and attacks leading to breaches on the platform. Which potentially circumvents ‘privacy’ settings that the user might have enabled."

Scott says the risk of having your content shared outside your trusted network is just too high for social media to ever offer a reliable sense of privacy for users. Because of this, Scott says reaching any true level of privacy on social media comes down to the user being responsible with the information they share.

Twitter conceptual privacy features

Twitter

"Just like voicemail, social media privacy is a personal responsibility thing, not a technology thing," Scott advised.

Users who share any kind of personal information could be opening themselves up to being exploited or even having that data used to build a profile against them. Others could then use that data to further their own nefarious schemes.

False Security

But one of the biggest issues facing privacy on social media is a sense of security. Features like privating your account, or Twitter’s oft-used protected tweets system, provide false security for users. Because they can control who follows them, they may start to think their content and information is safe from outside eyes. And sure, to a degree that may be true. When protected, tweets and other posts can’t be shared or retweeted. 

However, that doesn’t mean the risk of exposure has been removed altogether. As Hatter pointed out, it’s still easy for other users to take a screenshot and share that post with the world in some way. In fact, we’ve seen this happen many times across communities like Reddit, where users can find dozens (or more) subreddits designed specifically around sharing different types of posts for users to make fun of or comment on.

"Just like voicemail, social media privacy is a personal responsibility thing, not a technology thing."

Instead of buying into the belief that social media networks can protect you and the content you share, Hatter and Scott agree that users should take their protection into their own hands and control what they share on the internet. Hatter also says it's important to remember that one of the key ways that social media networks make money is by selling your data—who you follow, products you share, and other information—to advertisers.

"Assume everyone in the world will see all your social media posts sooner or later, and make your decisions on what to post with that in mind. If you want it private, then don’t share it," Scott warned.

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