Privacy on Facebook

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Introduction

        The creation of social networking sites, particularly Facebook, has seen the traditional concept of 'privacy' redefined in a cyber world. Many texts on the subject have observed how "privacy within social networking sites is often not expected or is undefined." (Dwyer, Hiltz & Passerini 2007). Much of the research regarding Facebook has involved surveying and interviewing University students, the audience for which Facebook was generated. Through this research, a complex but vivid image of how students react to privacy issues has been developed. Facebook has introduced the idea of social convergence, where "disparate social contexts are collapsed into one" (Boyd 2008), and this has resulted in individuals' loss of ability to manage private information. Researchers have discussed how with the imminence of social convergence, boundaries between public and private have been blurred and the traditional concept of privacy has been subverted. Social networking sites are, by nature, based on the concept of social capital formation and maintenance. Research has shown the importance of Facebook, as it "becomes ubiquitous and the default mode of communication" (Raynes-Goldie 2010), leading users to disregard privacy concerns in favour of sociometric popularity. This paper will examine the similarities and disparities in literature addressing privacy on Facebook, particularly in relation to issues of identity disclosure, ownership and the nature of social networking relationships.

The Undefined Nature of Privacy on Facebook

Facebook is a recently modern phenomenon, which assists in the maintenance of pre-existing social networks, as well as providing means to create new relationships based on shared interests, political views or mutual friend networks. Users of Facebook create profiles, which list identifying information to varying degrees, depending on privacy settings implemented by the user. The creation of these new, cyber communities, "makes social information more easily accessible [and] can rupture people's sense of public and private by altering the previously understood social norms". (Boyd 2008).

        Facebook was established as a social networking site available to college students only, using college email accounts and therefore increasing the expectations of validity, as well as "the perception of the online space as a closed, trusted, and trustworthy community." (Acquisti & Gross 2006). However, more recently, Facebook has become available to a global network, subverting the previous concept of privacy regulation in a closed network. Boyd (2008) has discussed how privacy is often taken for granted by users of social networking sites, asserting that "privacy is not an inalienable right - it is a privilege that must be protected socially and structurally in order to exist." (Boyd 2008).

The concept of privacy in our everyday world has not yet been defined, or made transferrable to social networking sites. Facebook publicly offers a detailed privacy disclosure statement, identifying how they "use" as well as "protect" personal information. These two terms are vastly conflicting, and Facebook's policy to protect personal information is almost entirely dependent on the user "setting privacy options that limit access to [their] information". (Facebook Revised December 9 2009).

Some of the more recent technologies applied to Facebook, such as the "Newsfeed", which brings together the actions of a participant's Facebook "friends" to one page, have been seen as violating privacy to an even greater degree. Boyd (2008) has attempted to grapple with these issues, introducing the idea of social convergence, where "disparate social contexts are collapsed into one...[which] requires people to handle disparate audiences simultaneously without a social script." (Boyd 2008). Boyd (2008) discusses how the concept of social convergence is an issue on Facebook, where onlookers can construe information a user intends to disclose to a particular audience in different ways. With the innovation of the "Newsfeed", "participants had to reconsider every change that they made because they knew it would be broadcast to all their Friends." (Boyd 2008). Raynes-Goldie (2010) has also touched on this topic, relating it back to the issue of privacy by discussing how "...the goal of [Facebook] is to increase the transparency and efficiency of communication, two goals which are not exactly in line with the protection of a user's social privacy." (Raynes-Goldie 2010).

All of these communicative features elude to what Halbert (2009) has referred to as the undefined nature of privacy on Facebook, which "provides opportunities for voyeuristic surveillance." (Halbert 2009). According to Halbert (2009), Facebook has become the equivalent of a "public space" (Halbert 2009), where users are under constant surveillance from various sources. This issue has been widely publicized, and various forms of media have coined the term "Facebook stalking", which "is typical, if not implicitly encouraged" (Dubow 2007) in these networks.

Due to Facebook's disposition as a highly public means of communication, there are many privacy concerns that are yet to be resolved. Theorists have attempted to resolve these issues by researching the processes of electronic communication, and more recently through attempting to redefine the concept of privacy in cyber networks.

Identity Disclosure on Facebook

        A great deal of research has been undertaken into the motivations behind varying degrees of identity disclosure on Facebook, particularly in college networks. Researchers have attempted to contextualise the reasons for users' lack of privacy concern when disclosing private information, particularly contact numbers and home addresses. Acquisti and Gross (2006) have examined how "changing cultural trends, familiarity and confidence in digital technologies, lack of exposure or memory of egregious misuses of personal data by others may all play a role in this unprecedented phenomenon of information revelation." (Acquisti & Gross 2006).

        There is a great deal of concern surrounding the degree to which Facebook is personally identifiable, where "there is a risk that the information given by the user could be abused by stalkers or identity thieves." (Whelan 2005). Tufecki (2008) identifies that students are "generally aware of the visibility of their profiles" (Tufekci 2008), and their lack of identity disclosure is probably based "on their current concerns and may be shortsighted about future problems." (Tufekci 2008). Of even greater concern is the use of Facebook by younger high school students who "...are more comfortable with sexual orientation, more motivated for publicity, and more willing to give up their privacy." (Tufekci 2008). Barnes has also conceptualized this issue, identifying how social networking tools "have almost become indispensable for teenagers, who often think of their lives as private as long as their parents are not reading their journals." (Barnes 2006). Tufecki (2008) has summarized this dichotomy between identity disclosure and privacy by offering the notion that "students do try to manage the boundary between publicity and privacy, but they do not do this by total withdrawal because they would then forfeit a chance for publicity." (Tufekci 2008).

        Christofides, Muise and Desmarais (2009) have distinguished an intrinsic link between identity disclosure and trust, where "information disclosure increases the impression of trustworthiness and results in reciprocal personal disclosure..." (Christofides, Muise & Desmarais 2009). Facebook users' who responded to an online survey identified that they were "significantly more likely to disclose information on Facebook than they were in general" (Christofides, Muise & Desmarais 2009), where "identity is constructed by sharing information such as pictures and interests." (Christofides, Muise & Desmarais 2009). This notion is shared by other researchers such as Strater and Richter (2007), who uncovered "the importance of personal disclosures in profile evaluation" (Strater & Richter 2007), through interview-based research.

        The extent to which user's disclose personally identifiable, private information on Facebook, has also been highly publicized in the media, typified in an article from The Boston Globe, stating that "the scope of Facebook's impact may not be felt for years to come." (Schweitzer 2005). Many theorists side with this notion, believing the consequences of identity disclosure in young users may not be perceptible for many years.

Ownership and Control over Personal Information

        In Facebook's privacy statement there is an acknowledgement that "we use the information we collect to try to provide a safe, efficient and customized experience." (Facebook Revised December 9 2009). However, many researchers and media outlets have seen the collecting and storage of personal information as motivated by anything but maintaining the privacy of users. Acquisti and Gross (2006) have contended that Facebook's personal data collection is not ethical and are concerned that "...information provided even on ostensibly private social networks is, effectively, public data, that could exist for as long as anybody has an incentive to maintain it." (Acquisti & Gross 2006). Other researchers such as Dwyer, Hiltz & Passerini (2007) believe Facebook and other social networking sites need to provide "explicit policies and data protection mechanisms in order to deliver the same level of social privacy found offline." (Dwyer, Hiltz & Passerini 2007). There have been a number of incidents already where people in the public spotlight have been scrutinized for information they have published online. Govani and Pashley (2005) have identified how this may become a substantial issue in the future, as "students may not see the information they provide as a threat to their future at present...[but] if they are put in the public eye for any reason the information can be published."' (Govani & Pashley 2005).

        Since Facebook is now a large corporation, which is motivated to a great degree by profit, personal information is expendable if advertising companies are interested in paying to perform research and targeted advertising towards users. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has established what he calls a "social ad", intended to "help [advertisers] create some of the best ad campaigns [they've] ever built." (Klassen November 26 2007). Catherine Rampell, a Washington Post Staff Writer has investigated the way targeted advertising is extremely affective as it "allows [the advertiser] to pull together things like age, demographics, geographical information, and the new holy grail: who user's friends are." (Rampell November 3, 2007). Todi (2008) also discusses how effective Facebook is as an advertising platform as it is "the 6th most trafficked website on the internet", "boasts an extremely large global user base" and "the addition of Facebook applications, gifts, pages and groups gives companies multiple options for targeting users through advertising campaigns." (Todi 2008). However, Todi (2008) has also acknowledged the extent to which Facebook's targeted advertising system "suffered a great deal of backlash and had to be modified heavily to appease its users", who were concerned about their privacy. (Todi 2008).

Although many users are unaware that their information is used in data mining and targeted advertising, "Facebook's privacy policy explicitly says that they may disclose profile information to third parties, so the prospect of them doing so is clearly realistic." (Jones & Soltren 2005). Szoka and Thierer (2009) argue that although the internet "increases the ways advertisers can reach audiences, it [also] increases the power audiences have to influence advertisers" (Szoka & Thierer 2009), as advertising companies wish to appease their audiences. As well as this, Szoka and Thierer (2009) also see targeted online advertising as intrinsically linked to freedom of speech and expression, as every aspect of user-generated content on the internet owes its existence to the innovation of Internet-based advertising (Szoka & Thierer 2009).

Overall, the divergence between privacy and ownership are summarized by Tufecki (2008), who distinguishes between relationships offline and electronic transmissions online, which are "generally stored by Internet service providers, archived by search engines, and documented in cookies and Web histories by default." (Tufekci 2008).

Future Research

        There are many avenues available for future research on the topic of privacy on Facebook, specifically focusing on identity disclosure, ownership and the nature of social networking relationships. Firstly, most research and samples have been performed on one university per study only, and have not aimed to target a wider national or global audience with varying demographics. As well as this, most of the research undertaken is largely, if not exclusively, based on interviews and surveys and there has been no participant-observation based research. This would be difficult as relationships function in different ways in online networks such as Facebook, but it would be informative in establishing any discrepancies between the safety measures users claim to utilize and the way their profile and interactions are actually designed.

        Another avenue, which would be interesting to research, is whether the extent to which a user applies privacy settings and restricts information on Facebook is based on personal experience or knowledge of stalking or identity theft. As discovered when researching identity disclosure, there is little literature based on studies of high school students (rather than university students), which would be informative since previous studies have assumed teenagers are less aware of privacy risks and less able to comprehend the consequences of sharing personal data with potential strangers.

        Finally, as the nature of social networking sites is that they are constantly changing and evolving, research into Facebook could be undertaken periodically, over a greater space of time, to track changes in behavior as policies change and structural adjustments are made. This could also be studied in conjunction with periodical media coverage, which will continue to track privacy issues on Facebook due to public interest. This would allow further depth to the research in recognizing whether media concern and publicity affects the disclosure of personal information and the implementation of privacy settings on Facebook.

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  • Barnes, S. 2006, 'A Privacy Paradox: Social Networking in the United States', First Monday [Online], vol. 11, no. 9.
  • Boyd, D. 2008, 'Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck: Exposure, Invasion and Social Convergence', Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technology, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 13-20.
  • Christofides, E., Muise, A. & Desmarais, S. 2009, 'Information Disclosure and Control on Facebook: Are they Two Sides of the Same Coin or Two Different Processes?', CyberPsychology & Behaviour, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 341-345.
  • Dubow, B. 2007, 'Confessions of "Facebook Stalkers"', USA Today, <http://www.usatoday.com/tech/webguide/internetlife/2007-03-07-facebook-stalking_N.htm>.
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  • Strater, K. & Richter, H. 2007, 'Examining Privacy and Disclosure in a Social Networking COmmunity', paper presented to the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security, Pittsburgh, USA.
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