Privacy in social networks

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  • Updated.jpg 18 March 2016


See also Blogging and the law | Context collapse in social media | Digital identity | Goffman's frame analysis | Media literacy

"...never before in the history of the planet have so many people – on their own – had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people" — Thomas L. Friedman

Privacy in social networks (and privacy literacy) are critically important considerations of the digital age. Educators and social media users around the world are debating the issues around privacy in social media but especially about whether privacy has changed (is changing) as a result of our newly-acquired social habits or whether it is stricter than ever. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued in 2008 that "privacy is dead". In response, boyd said that when Facebook makes "data visible in a more ‘efficient’ manner, it is startling, prompting users to speak of a disruption of ‘privacy’." Clearly, there's a deep need to examine citizens' attitudes towards the use of personal information whether it's for sharing with advertisers or making it available for social networking purposes.

What is perceived to be "private" seems to shift according to one's cultural expectations of privacy. In most social media, friending is common which permits someone you barely know to follow you and access information about you online. Generally speaking, most SNSs have membership rules and community standards that govern communication; many also have privacy controls. Communicating in private is seen to be important in building trust in SNS because users are often engaged in disclosing identity-relevant information on their profiles. The aggregation of personal information on social media poses some significant and newer kinds of privacy risks. One challenge is balancing the right to freedom of expression with the right to privacy. Because information spreads fast on the web, some personal data may inadvertently make its way onto the open web because a lot of information posted online is easily copied, distributed and stored indefinitely. Social media users may be surprised to learn that information they posted a while ago has appeared in some other context years later.

See "Do I have a right to be forgotten". Personal Privacy in Digital world, BBC Radio

Privacy literacy & 'management'

  • The challenge is to participate in social networking sites while managing privacy of personal information
  • Most of us value our privacy. We get dressed in private, don't like people listening in on our phone calls, and choose whether to share our letters, diary entries, or medical records with others.
  • Privacy is a basic human impulse, and the right to control who sees our most personal information and activities is recognized by most democratic legal systems
  • In the past, how did we protect our privacy? We kept our voices low, sotto voce, we locked away patient records and shredded information; now the information is digital, reproducible, sendable; actionable but not controllable
  • With the emergence of cloud technology, a huge amount of our personal and business information has migrated from hard drives we own to remote servers managed by various companies.
  • Recently, Pew published a helpful document that outlines the situation in Privacy Management on Social Media Sites.
  • Privacy issues fall under the concept of privacy literacy; skills needed in the digital age to manage privacy. According to Canada's privacy commissioner, privacy literacy may be defined as "...having the skills to engage fully and confidently in the digital world, without compromising your own personal information or that of others. This implies that both individuals and organizations need to have a much better grasp of privacy obligations and their importance."
  • As a librarian or physician, you may want to consider privacy skills as a basic competency in the digital age.
  • In 2011, Debatin recommended those who use social network sites develop “privacy literacy,” which he defines as “an informed concern for their privacy and effective strategies to protect it”.
  • Canada is a nation of early adopters in terms of new technologies – with 80% of Canadians over the age of 16 now online
  • when it comes to online literacy, Canada lags behind a bit, and more so when it comes to privacy literacy
  • many people don't realize they leave a trail of digital bread crumbs when they click their way through websites and from website to website
  • computer users don’t realize the digital crumbs won’t disappear -- they are stored, analyzed and accessible
  • they don’t understand that this information is used in ways they never thought or imagined
  • moreover, how many people actually read privacy policies?
  • we need to learn how to make use of tools to protect our privacy; for example, use search engines that don’t remember our searches (or opt out of them capturing personal information); some search engines have shorter data retention periods than others
  • in the Google WiFi story, the focus was on the company’s actions; but there’s a question about user knowledge about securing wireless networks
  • need for improved privacy literacy applies to individuals and organizations; businesses need to ensure their employees are privacy literate; that they have knowledge of how personal information should be used and handled in the context of privacy

Privacy laws

  • In Canada, the Privacy Act protects the privacy of individuals with respect to personal information about themselves held by a government institution and that provide individuals with a right of access to that information.
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) is the main law governing online privacy in the United States. But it was passed in 1986, when the web was just getting started, and many of its key provisions are out-of-date.
  • For instance, the law considers email that is stored on a server for more than six months to be abandoned and, as a result, obtainable without a warrant.
  • Perhaps this made sense in the 1990s, when many users downloaded emails onto their computer from the server. But it's completely outdated in the age of Gmail, Hotmail, and other cloud-based email providers.
  • The ways companies now track so much of our personal information troubles privacy advocates. The absence of strong online consumer protection laws means that information communicated and stored online is not granted the same degree of privacy protections found in many other industries.
  • As a result, Internet companies have been left almost completely free to monitor their users' personal behavior and sell this information to advertisers
  • In fact, many of the companies offering cloud storage, such as Google and Amazon, make secondary use of the data that you upload to their servers--even if you designate the information as private
  • Protecting our privacy means protecting our ability to make informed decisions about how our digital information and online activies are shared

Librarians' concerns

  • There has been considerable debate about the use of social media and privacy among librarians. All librarians can and should develop an understanding of the potential impact on users of online social networks to their lives and privacy.
  • Due to concerns of safety, privacy, bullying and advertising, steps can be taken to educate staff and students in university libraries as to how to protect themselves.
  • Allowing access to social media on library computers is an issue. In one study, 19% of librarians expressed concerns about privacy, and others were vocal about them (McMenemy, 2008).
  • In a recent Pew Report, 50% of SNS users said they had difficulty in managing privacy controls; however, only 2% said it was “very difficult” to use the controls. Interestingly, those with the most education reported the most trouble.
  • McMenemy surveyed fourteen libraries and found that 50% blocked access to social networking sites. Some libraries blocked Facebook because children were inclined to disclose too much information there. Facebook has since taken steps to combat youth disclosure by deleting any profiles of users under age thirteen.
  • Atkinson says that “a significant number of individuals experience mental or physical harm because of the abuse of personal information” (2007, p. 383) posted online. One study of university Facebook usage found that “10% of students said they felt stalked because of constant messaging by an individual” (Stern & Taylor, 2007)
  • Some argue that the lack of privacy on social media sites is contrary to the ethics of librarianship. The ALA code of ethics and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals affirm the commitment to upholding privacy as a fundamental right in libraries.
  • Facebook and Twitter are so-called mediated public sites (ie, places in which mediating technology allow people to gather publicly)
  • Persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences are 4 unique properties of mediated publics; “conversations” there are recorded, can be searched, replicated, and altered
  • Pictures or comments remain linked with individuals after their attitudes and behaviors have changed; individuals conversing on social sites imagine their audience and speak to the accepted norms of that audience; what they do not understand is that there may be multiple audiences, including those with some power or authority over them
  • The ability to define audiences through privacy features is an important part of social networking; the ability “does not necessarily imply an understanding about how information is used.

Key websites
  • Privacy plugin keeps Facebook from reading your updates [Boing Boing]
  • Companies learn your secrets with data about you [FlowingData]
  • iPhone and Android apps now required to have privacy policies [Ars Technica]
  • FTC: Apps for Children Raise Privacy Concerns [Mashable]
  • White House announces new privacy "Bill of Rights," Do Not Track agreement [Ars Technica]


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