Salesforce: Privacy needs consensus

Summary:Salesforce research director Peter Coffee discusses the implications for privacy and cloud security of companies' increased use of social data

The vast volumes of personal data people are posting online via sites such as Facebook and Twitter are increasingly being used by companies to generate sales and to analyse marketing and brand perception.

Salesforce.com is one of the companies leading the charge in the use of social networks in business contexts.

Its Chatter product allows companies to grab sales contact information from social media and build social networks with customers, while its acquisition of Data.com enables its customers to pull crowd-sourced information into sales apps.

ZDNet UK caught up with Peter Coffee, Salesforce's director of platform research, to quiz him about customer reaction to the use of their data by business, and the cloud security implications of the increased flow of information.

Q: Are companies in danger of using too much information on customers, by combining information from different sources?
A: You can very quickly populate, or repopulate, a startlingly comprehensive picture of a customer, combining whatever they've decided to show of themselves on Twitter and Facebook.

This is automating what was already possible by manual means. It's an interesting question about whether the combination of data creates a qualitative change, but it would be a presumption of me to tell you how people feel about that, and there are many conversations on this subject.

Some commentators draw a distinction between older and younger users, and their views about the use of social-networking data. Yet the Office for National Statistics has found a large uptake of social networks by older users in the UK. What's your take on this?
There's often a crude distinction drawn between older and younger generations and attitudes to technology, but if you look at the actual demographics of Facebook adoption, it's not nearly so simple.

When people see value being returned to them as a result of making data available, the reaction is positive. Any perception that data is being extracted from them by surreptitious means, and they have an adverse reaction.

People try to paint it as a generational divide, but data contravenes the glib claim that youngsters "get it" and oldsters don't. I'm 54, and I have no trouble "getting it".

The degree to which people participate in frequent-purchaser programmes demonstrates that they know their data has value, and they view that as a fair exchange.

Do companies using information from social networks leave themselves open to the risk that the data they pull has been made available on an opt-out rather than opt-in basis, and that this may contravene data-protection principles?
What you're saying is, that we may inadvertently be passing data whose provenance is disreputable?

No, I'm asking whether companies are leaving themselves open to the risk that the data they pull may have been made available without the explicit consent of users.
We enumerate sources of data in our offerings, like Data.com with its crowd-sourced, community information. Jigsaw is a reputable operation, and our Radian6 offering makes quite visible its data sources. I don't think there's anything behind the curtain here. People who...

Topics: Security

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Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com, writing about all manner of security and open-source issues.Tom had various jobs after leaving university, including working for a company that hired out computers as props for films and television, and a role turning the entire back catalogue of a publisher into e-books.Tom eventually found tha... Full Bio

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