Be Careful What You Say on a Social Network: The Walls Have Eyes

Recently, I visited a BT central telephone exchange in Newcastle’s Carliol Square and within its labyrinth of walls I met Sarah.

It is Sarah’s job to spend all day monitoring Twitter for negative or abusive comments made about BT or its services. When she finds one, she contacts the customer by e-mail or phone and attempts to resolve the problem.

She showed me how she does this, using a system called Debatescape. ‘The program scans Twitter for certain buzzwords, in our case it’s mainly “bt”,’ she informs me.

‘But people will obviously use “bt” as an abbreviation for things like “but”. Its my job to sort through these. You get some pretty funny ones,’ she adds, scrolling down a list of about 10 Twitter comments.

As I begin to imagine the amount of strange/disturbing/hilarious posts which could contain the abbreviation “bt”, Sarah’s cursor lands on a rather modest ‘@… bt WTF?’, which she removes by pressing ignore. ‘Usually, I just read down this list and press “mass ignore” at the bottom here,’ she explains.

BT also have similar systems for Facebook and Youtube.

Recently, ‘BTSarah’ has come under scrutiny from the The Daily Mail, who reported that an unnamed BT customer found being contacted about their moaning on Twitter ‘Big Brotherish and sinister’.

Except that what Sarah is doing isn’t really ‘Big Brotherish’, is it? When you join Twitter, you are essentially allowing anyone lucky enough to have access to the internet the privilege of reading all of your mundane mental vomits 24/7.  Isn’t that the whole point?

This complaint only reinforced my belief that people have forgotten what it truly means to post something publicly. The clue is in the word public, or, as BT calls it, ‘open source intelligence’.

It’s plain to see that some people have either disregarded the art of the private message, or, alternatively, have become so deluded by a false sense of self-importance that they think the vast majority of online readers will understand or recognise the importance of a statement such as ‘OMG! Just woke up lol’.

The Debatescape system raises important issues about how safe we are when we decide to tell the whole world about nothing in particular. The Daily Mail claim that Easy Jet, The Carphone Warehouse and banks such as Lloyds TSB are all using similar systems on social networks.

Think about how much sensitive information is available the next time your trawling through your posts. From moaning about organisations to talking about current locations and announcing new phone numbers, mediums such as Facebook and Twitter have become a means of venting our personal experiences to the world.

And who is listening? Communications businesses, airlines, banks. And these are just the groups we know about; if the metropolitan police do not have something similar yet someone has seriously dropped the ball in the ICT department.

No, Debatescape isn’t exactly ‘Big Brotherish’. However, it is a very sobering example of how the last people you want reading your public outbursts can be the ones paying the most attention.


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