Path, in the eye of the storm for neglecting its users’ privacy

Path could have been one of the new sensations on the web. In November, the mobile social network created by an ex-employee of Facebook launched a new version. Thanks to its attractive redesign, it grew surprisingly fast, with more than a million users joining the platform in just two months.

But now a scandal is threatening Path’s development possibilities. The company has admitted that, in its iPhone version, it was downloading and storing information from users’ address books without authorization. The social network apologized, assuring that it had been an unintentional mistake and that all the information collected had been deleted from its browsers. In any case, a question is now on users’ minds:” How do mobile applications use our personal information?”

Security, a thorn in the side of the social networks

It’s not the first time that a social network finds itself in the eye of the storm due to its way of using users’ information. Facebook has already received a lot of criticism owing to the lack of security on the platform and in many of its applications, such as its chat service. In fact, in May last year the tool created by Mark Zuckerberg experienced a slight decrease in the number of users in the United States. This was apparently caused by the security scandals on the web that drove many users to leave the platform.

The truth is that the concepts of ‘social network’ and ‘sharing information’ go hand in hand. When using any online service that puts us in contact with other users, we are undoubtedly we are jeopardizing our data. We should ask ourselves what each application does with the data, how it administers it, and what degree of control the user has over the use of personal information.

Giving clear information

Ultimately, the conflict hasn’t arisen solely because Path gained access to users’ personal information. Many other applications do it, and inform users how information will be used during the subscription process. Maybe the best example is LinkedIn, which offers users the option of authorizing access to the email address book , so that a message informing others of their presence on the platform. But the contact network for professionals clearly informs its users what it does with their information and gives them the option of not sharing it.

In the case of Path, its Android application asks for users’ authorization to access their address books. In this way, it can send them a message informing them of the use of the application. But the iPhone version didn’t ask for any kind of authorisation: it simply took information from users’ address books without consulting them beforehand.

After the scandal, Path assured that it was going to rectify the situation, and that all the information collected from users had been deleted from its browsers. Despite what many sceptics might think, it’s unlikely that the information has been used for anything other than promoting the platform. But, the company undoubtedly committed an enormous mistake that could have been avoided by simply offering more information to users.

A question of confidence

The decision by an online application to use personal information should always be in the user’s hands. Contrary to what many people believe, this option could turn out to be positive for users: it helps to identify possible contacts and people close to the user who are present on a social networking tool. It also enables the growth of platforms and this, when it comes down to it, is beneficial for the user, who has the possibility of widening his or her list of contacts.

On occasions there is an exaggerated sensitivity about information shared online. It is true that nobody in their right mind would publish their telephone number or address on the wall of a social network. But authorizing an application to use our list of contacts to send them a message shouldn’t necessarily be considered a risk, and undoubtedly many users can see the benefits of doing so. 

Basically, it’s a question of trust. If users trust an application, if they know that the company that developed it has clear policies regarding access and use of personal information, they probably won’t have any doubts about authorizing the use of information, the use of which may benefit both parties. This is something that Path doesn’t seem to have understood and, in spite of its apologies, there is now a question mark hanging over the company’s future.