Information on the Internet is subject to the same rules and regulations as conversation at a bar.
The birth of the digital age has given rise to unprecedented levels of information and communication at unparalleled speeds of access. According to Lee Odden, author of Optimize, Google processes over 11 billion queries a month, Twitter handles over 350 billion tweets a day and almost a billion people are on Facebook. With communication and information flowing like water from a fire hydrant, the rights and privacy of digital consumers may be swept out to sea by ethically challenged individuals and companies.
A cautionary spin on a popular phrase, “What Happens in Vegas Stays on Facebook,” has been a career-ending wake-up call to politicians, teachers, coaches and other professionals who discovered that privacy settings are rendered null and void by “friends” who choose to share questionable pictures and videos. These same friends can also wreak havoc by retweeting controversial Twitter comments or forwarding thoughtless email remarks.
A central ethical issue involves the rights of individuals to take personal information that they receive as a member of someone’s “inner circle” and share it with the knowledge that it may cause embarrassment (or worse) for the subject in question.
Some friends may not have a malicious intent when they distribute unauthorized content. They merely find the material funny and want to share it with others in the same way that someone shares a good joke. These individuals may merely be thoughtless and are not considering the repercussions of exposing the content to a larger audience. On the other hand, for some people, it takes a painful, public, social media epiphany to reveal a Judas in the inner circle.
It is harder to process the motives of strangers who receive and forward personal information. Since they have no relationship with the subject, their anonymity may dull their ethical senses.
In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Frederick Lane, an attorney and the author of American Privacy, notes that in most cases, individuals are not losing control. They are giving control away. Lane laments the fact that “we trade information that our parents and grandparents would have considered private for fun, for convenience, for that kind of thing.”
Unfortunately, refraining from posting embarrassing information does not guarantee privacy. The camera found on most cell phones allows individuals to be videotaped without their permission, and footage can be viral in a matter of seconds. The risk of unauthorized photos has been a problem – especially for celebrities – since the formation of the Eastman Kodak Company. Now, the stakes are higher, the potential for damage is greater and the tools of the trade are much smaller. Cell and smart phone cameras are tiny and inconspicuous, and include zoom lenses and autofocus features. Some have video editing capabilities, which increase the ease with which high-quality, unapproved photos and videos can be shared with millions.
There have been documented cases in which camera phone footage was used to help law enforcement officials solve crimes. In some cases, it exposed officers who were breaking the law. However, the majority of unauthorized footage in circulation does not fall into this category, and arguably, would not be classified as acts performed for the greater good of society.
Therefore, strangers who videotape others without their knowledge may appear to have a more malicious intent than friends who merely share received content with others. On the other hand, several generations have been exposed to TV shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and other blooper programs, so these strangers may view themselves as contributors to the ongoing comedic video process.
The proliferation of potentially embarrassing information has led many companies to adopt a Big Brother approach to monitoring the digital information of its employees. According to the website PrivacyRights.org, employees should be aware that any email typed at work is the property of the organization. Even if an employee deletes the email, the company can – and has the right to – retrieve it.
In a USA Today article, Kim Komando, host of The Kim Komando Show, warns that employers also have the right to monitor company-provided smart phones. In addition, there are keylogger applications that can secretly record the phone’s photos, videos, email, contacts and GPS location. Komando, whose talk radio show educates consumers on electronics, computers, and the Internet, supports an organization’s right to track phone usage since it is, after all, their phone, and she recommends purchasing a personal phone for personal use.
Companies also monitor other digital areas of employees’ lives to counter questionable behavior. Many organizations have a social media policy that prohibits employees from posting negative information about the company, since this is perceived as the most damaging type of behavior to an organization. However, PrivacyRights.org also notes that California, New York and Colorado are a few of the states that do not allow companies to discipline employees for questionable social media behavior unless it is specifically work-related.
The New York Times revealed the inception of monitoring software –called Social Sentry – that companies can purchase to track Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts of their employees. Tenerous, the software’s manufacturer, states that in addition to following the social media activities of their employees, companies can also track worker activity “on any device” and in “real time.”
Social Sentry can also be customized for automatic notifications and alerts, and it can create reports and analytics to determine employee usage. Nancy Flynn of the ePolicy Institute notes that social media leaves a trail that can be used in legal proceedings and supports the right of companies to use Social Sentry and other software to monitor this type of activity.
However, it is a morally grey issue. While it may be argued that a company has a right to monitor social activity performed during work hours or using the organization’s equipment, Facebook and Twitter are generally considered personal tools of communication. National Workrights Institute president Lewis Maltby acknowledges an organization’s right to protect its reputation and know what its employees are doing online, but worries that this level of social media monitoring may result in employees being fired for expressing their political beliefs, or making off-color comments.
Making the ethical waters even murkier, Social Sentry and other employee social monitoring software, merely collects information that is already publicly available. Anyone interested in researching an individual’s social media footprint has access to the same data.
In this respect, it could be argued that a company has the same right that everyone else does to access public social media information. Actually, it may have a greater right since the employee’s actions could cause irreparable damage to the organization. Monitoring social media provides companies with an opportunity to warn, reign in or even terminate toxic employees, and possibly avert a public scandal. On the other hand, “availability” may not be a valid justification to employees who bemoan their lack of privacy.
Ultimately, the best defense is a good offense, and since the practice of digital ethics varies greatly, individuals can best protect their privacy, reputation and possibly their career by limiting what they share online. A good rule of thumb: don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your boss or your worst enemy to see, because they probably will.
Terri Williams is a business, ethics, and communications writer. She spent 14 years in the media department of a large non-profit organization, and has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.