LinkedIn makes marketing shills of its members by default

Here’s how to opt out of LinkedIn's use of your personal information in ads that appear on the social network.

If you're a member of LinkedIn -- the social network with a business bent -- you might want to review some changes made in the service's privacy policy -- if you can find it.

You see, about two months ago, LinkedIn made some under-the-radar amendments to the policy that allows it to use its members' names and photos in third-party advertising that appears on the social network.

"LinkedIn may sometimes pair an advertiser's message with social content from LinkedIn's network in order to make the ad more relevant," the amended privacy states.

"When LinkedIn members recommend people and services, follow companies, or take other actions, their name/photo may show up in related ads shown to you," it continued."Conversely, when you take these actions on LinkedIn, your name/photo may show up in related ads shown to LinkedIn members."

"By providing social context," it added, "we make it easy for our members to learn about products and services that the LinkedIn network is interacting with."

And it also makes it easier for the advertisers to exploit the reputations of the service's members to sell products those members may not endorse.

Here’s How to Opt Out

The feature is "opt-out" so you can turn it off, as long as you know about it. Here's what to do to:

  • On your LinkedIn home page, click on your name in the upper right hand corner of the page.
  • A drop down menu will appear with two options: settings and sign out. Choose settings.
  • On the settings page, click on Account at the lower left of the page. The box adjacent to the Account option will display a number of choices organized into groups—Privacy Controls, Settings, Email & Password and Helpful Links.
  • Under the Privacy Controls group, click Manage Social Advertising. That will display a box that allows you to turn off the advertising feature.

The question remains, though, should a feature that so brazenly violates the privacy of LinkedIn members be opt-out? Paul Ducklin at the Sophos Naked Security, for one, doesn't think so.

"Crudely put, LinkedIn will mine your usage habits to determine what products and services you're interested in, and then use your name and photo in what amounts to an endorsement for those products and services when they're advertised to other users," he wrote.

"This feature is opt-out, even though it reduces your privacy and infers your goodwill, and even though it wasn't part of LinkedIn's service when many current users signed up," Ducklin argued.

Other Brazen Privacy Violations

This problem with opt-out features that intrude on privacy is a familiar one. When Google launched its unpopular social network, Buzz, it required any Google users who didn't want to be in Buzz to "opt-out." That little episode resulted in a class-action lawsuit that cost Searchzilla $8.5 million and the signing of an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requiring that the company undergo annual privacy audits for 20 years.

It remains to be seen if this recent effort by LinkedIn to monetize its member base will hurt the service's brand. Gartner Research Director Robin Wilton thinks it will.

"Even among people I know in the privacy community, there are those who maintain a LinkedIn account even though they would not touch most of the other online networking services with a barge-pole," he wrote in a company blog.

"Somehow LinkedIn, with its business-oriented approach to building and publishing your professional biography, has been seen as less promiscuous with its members’ data than the broader ‘social’ sites," he said.

"Whether or not that trust was well placed," he added. "I think LinkedIn may just have forfeited a slab of it."

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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John P. Mello Jr.

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