New social network touts privacy in wake of hacks, NSA stories

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by RENAY SAN MIGUEL / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on January 2, 2014 at 1:49 PM

Sgrouples bills itself as "the world's safest social network," so you would expect CEO and co-founder Mark Weinstein to talk a fair amount of trash about Facebook, Snapchat and other social media-based services.

Example: When eight big tech companies including Facebook and Google recently wrote a letter to President Obama and Congress asking for surveillance reforms in the wake of the NSA scandal, "My question to them is did you CC yourself on this letter?" Weinstein said. "They're spying on everything we do - the airline tickets we buy, where we shop - and they're turning that into advertisements. They've distorted the promise of the Internet and attempted to brainwash us into believing that it's okay."

Harsh words from a social network that launched in 2012 and hasn't yet shared its membership statistics, while Facebook has a billion-plus users and has been around since 2004. But two days after KING 5 interviewed Weinstein via phone, the following happened:

* Snapchat, the ephemeral photo and video messaging company, admitted that user names and phone numbers of more than 4.5 million users were posted online by an anonymous hacker.

* Skype, the video conferencing service owned by Microsoft, saw its social network accounts and blog hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army.

* An annual Harris Poll that ranks industries for trustworthiness and honesty showed only 6 percent of those surveyed had anything good to say about social media companies. Tobacco and oil were the only industries to poll lower numbers.

Not exactly the kind of company Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to keep, so Weinstein is clearly on to something with Sgrouples. That's especially true when you consider Facebook's long history of battles with privacy groups, the attention Google has received from both the Federal Trade Commission and the European Union, and the recent revelation that a Chicago security company discovered millions of stolen social network passwords hidden in a European server.

Weinstein knows this could be Sgrouples' moment to separate itself from the social network pack.

"In real life, when I'm talking to you as a friend, other friends don't hear it," he said. "In real life we can select college friends, classmates, our grandmothers, everyone on down to my coworkers. We message everybody different. We have unique discreet groups in life. Sgrouples is designed to replicate that."

Weinstein says privacy policies for other social networks are meant to "confuse and distort" with thousands of words that make customers' eyes glaze over while lulling them into a false sense of security. That's why Sgrouples's Privacy Bill of Rights is a series of brief sentences that can be found on the social network's homepage.

Customers own all their data and content, and have control over who sees it. Customers and their friends/contact lists are not tracked. Information is never shared with advertisers, and members can delete their account and content at any time.

Sgrouples does make money through advertisements, but it gives users a choice of what kinds of ads they'll view, and their data is never sold to third parties. The network also makes money from services including data storage options and private group apps.

So if Weinstein is so critical of other social networks, why does Sgrouples allow users to import their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn contact lists?

Despite his trash talk, "I'm not against Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn," he answered. "When you want to be public and tell the world something, Facebook is a great place for that. Just make sure you know what you're doing. Twitter is a great publication platform. We want to give you the convenience - when you're posting something at Sgrouples, you might also want to post it on Facebook or Twitter. I don't want to take that away, but we want to give you the privacy protection based on Sgrouples."

That means when you scan your Facebook feed inside Sgrouples' environment, "Facebook isn't watching when you do that."

Weinstein is actually a pioneer in the social media space, having started fledgling social networks in SuperFamiiy, SuperFriends and SuperGroups in the late 1990s. He also belongs to various privacy advocacy and advisory groups, including a White House privacy initiative.

Weinstein, trained as a sociologist, believes that 2014 will be the year that customers educate themselves on privacy. "That's when behavioral change happens. All of this has implications for society and the world, so we're going to see this debate.

"If it's not okay for the NSA to spy on us, why is it okay for a corporation to spy on us?"

 

 

 

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