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Exploring the evolution of privacy in digital social platforms with product leader Esha Shukla

Esha Shukla’s past experiences and innovations show how social platforms are evolving.

Photo courtesy Esha Shukla
Photo courtesy Esha Shukla

Opinions expressed by Digital Journal contributors are their own.

Esha Shukla is a distinguished Senior Product Management leader with over a decade of training and experience building social technology products. She currently leads the effort to help billions of users around the world engage safely in online communities on WhatsApp.

Prior to WhatsApp, Esha has led development of large consumer social platforms like Facebook and MeetUp. Esha has been recognized as one of the top 100 emerging women leaders and has received multiple awards including the Globee Product Developer Award for her contributions in the field.

In the rapidly changing world of online social platforms, certain individuals stand out as extraordinary trailblazers who are shaping the next evolution of this industry. One such leader in this space is Esha Shukla, a prominent figure who has played a pivotal role in ensuring that billions of people can continue to privately and safely engage online as the landscape evolves.

In this Q&A, we leverage Esha Shukla’s past experiences and innovations to learn how social platforms are evolving, the implications to privacy and user safety and what we can do to ensure that privacy is safeguarded through this evolution in social and messaging platforms.

Q1: What are some of the recent trends in online social platforms ?
Esha Shukla: The last 2 to 3 years have been particularly exciting in terms of the evolution of the industry. Three key new industry trends have emerged – a) new platforms have come up around new verticals particularly in the messaging space and have gained rapid popularity, b) existing platforms across verticals ranging from finance, education, productivity and more are making social a component in their ecosystems and c) new technologies like large language models and Generative AI are rapidly making their way into large online consumer platforms and in many cases providing tremendous benefit to billions of users.

Q2: What implications is this having to privacy?
Esha Shukla: I have seen two very interesting themes emerge. The first one is that many of these existing and new platforms are more open and public by default. This ranges from social platforms like X and TikTok to fintech platforms like Cash. By default users need to engage socially in these communities and the engagement tends to be more public than private which intrinsically means privacy is not the default.

The second one is that novel technologies like large language models intrinsically require using more and more user data to provide the promised benefit of the technology. These two themes intrinsically mean that users have less privacy online.

Q3: What aspects of privacy are relevant to this?
Esha Shukla: The two key aspects of privacy that get impacted by this are privacy of a user from the billions of other people on the platform and privacy of a user from the platform itself (or bad actors who could attack the platform and compromise the data). 

Q4: What’s at stake here?
Esha Shukla: In the extreme case, the consequences may be dire. We have seen numerous instances where lack of proper privacy in both of the aspects I referenced above could lead to real world harm. There have been instances where user’s profiles on social dating platforms were used to identify their location and cause them real world harm, where financial data the platform had was compromised and valuable information like credit card and social security numbers were and more.

Q4: Who is responsible to ensure that privacy and safety is safeguarded?
Esha Shukla: The short answer is – everyone. Individual users, the platforms and even governments and regulatory bodies all play an important role in ensuring that user’s privacy and safety is always protected.

Q5: Do platforms care about protecting user privacy and safety?
Esha Shukla; In my experience working on big platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Meetup, absolutely yes. All platforms care about their user’s privacy. The less safe and private users feel, the more likely they are to leave the platform for good.

At WhatsApp where I currently lead the effort to build online communities, privacy is a core principle of our product – to the extent that WhatsApp encrypts messages so that even WhatsApp does not know the contents of the message. WhatsApp community groups are ‘private’ by default, meaning members can request to join, but a group admin has to approve or reject the request, empowering them to manage safe and thriving communities. It’s in the best interest of the platform to keep their users safe. 

Q6: What can platforms do to ensure that privacy is safeguarded?
Esha Shukla: I encourage platform builders to think of both prevention and protection. On the prevention side, be very cognizant of what metadata the user is putting on the platform and who can see it. For every piece of metadata, think about whether it’s truly necessary. Once metadata is uploaded to the platform, ensuring that there are robust controls available to ensure that access to that metadata can be limited.

A classic example here is the ‘Lock your Profile’ product I led at Facebook which provided users with a seamless way to protect all their metadata on Facebook. Another example is how the work I led on WhatsApp helped group owners protect their online communities from bad actors.

On the protection side, ensuring that platforms are helping users make a good judgment. An example here is the Group Reputation System I led on Meetup which helped tens of millions of users understand the legitimacy and relevancy of a group before they chose to attend an in-person event hosted by the group. 

Q7: Are these measures enough?
Esha Shukla: No system is perfectly private and safe. Bad actors will strive and in some cases likely find ways to find loopholes in a system. This is where I recommend a 3rd measure: detection or learning when the preventions and protections are failing. This is where some of the novel technologies like large language models can help us understand if there is harassment, unwanted contact or other types of privacy harm happening on the platform. I have commonly seen use of these methods to identify gaps and further improve privacy.

Q8: What should users do?
Esha Shukla: The first thing I’d recommend is to know what controls the platform has to offer to help you safeguard your privacy. An educated user base is a powerful user base. At Facebook, we had both product and Help Center articles to help users understand how they can easily use the protective and preventive tools we have. The second thing I’d recommend is to be very thoughtful of what they are even putting on the platform.

Q9: Would taking all these measures actually help?
Esha Shukla: While no measures are foolproof, these measures go a long way. We have repeated evidence of how platforms and users have jointly implemented the measures I prescribe above to bolster digital privacy.

The best example I can give is with ‘Lock your Profile’ again. This product was used to protect millions of users on Facebook during periods of intense complicated geo-political environments – protecting citizens during the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the military conflict in Ukraine and the military coup in Myanmar.

Q10: What do you think the digital social media landscape will look like 10 years from now?
Esha Shukla: Social platforms are no longer a luxury and are now a necessity to connect us with our friends, family, interests, communities and more in this day and age. I expect to see a continued proliferation of social platforms in both existing markets as well as in completely novel one’s like AR and VR. As these technologies evolve, we will continue to see bad actors leveraging new types of technologies.

However, I believe that the right structure is in place for platforms to innovate even faster on protecting and safeguarding privacy. While no system is perfectly safe, the increased focus on privacy and adoption of novel technologies in safeguarding it will lead us to an even safer environment for online social platforms. The last thing we need to do is ensure that the next generation of leaders are continuing to be trained to think about privacy as a core part of the product. And I look forward to working with and leading this group to further the mission of digital privacy.

In conclusion, the significant advancements in both advocating for online privacy at the forefront and building new technologies and products to deliver on the promise of privacy are a testament to the transformative leadership of pioneers like Esha Shukla. Their visionary leadership continues to ensure that privacy is advancing in lock step with the evolution of online social platforms and is not getting left behind.

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Written By

Jon Stojan is a professional writer based in Wisconsin. He guides editorial teams consisting of writers across the US to help them become more skilled and diverse writers. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his wife and children.

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