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Threats to privacy of users of social networking sites and the need for protection of personal data
Since the launch of the Internet, practically every aspect of human life has been transformed. The Internet has become an instrument for the realisation of fundamental human rights (Centre for Law and Democracy, 2011). Although new and advancing technologies introduce new prospects for the way we share personal data, these technologies bring new privacy threats as well. Rapid development of online social media has increased public concerns about online privacy (Barnes, 2006; Boyd, 2008, as cited in Yao, 2011, p.118). While internet-based social networking sites are great platforms for users to expand and maintain their personal or professional social networks, such a benefit would require users to disclose a vast amount of personal information, which could cause more substantial risks of privacy harms. Although online privacy protection is vital to ensure human rights, there should be some limitations. This essay will discuss both opportunities and risks of social networking sites, as well as a need for protection and reasons for restriction of privacy online.
Social networking sites are websites that focus on creating and reflecting social relationships among individuals (UNESCO, 2012). Each service is diverse, but the typical design allows users to form their own webpage holding various kinds of data. Users are able to connect with friends who can to see their information and vice versa (UNESCO, 2012). McGoldrick (2013) asserts that Facebook and other SNSs have transformed modern communications (p.125). The primary purpose of participating in social networks is the exchange of information, most of which is highly personal, and the maintenance and development of one’s social relationships (Debatin, 2011, p.54). The use of social networking sites is becoming increasingly popular. According to Staco=operationtista (2018), as of the second quarter of 2018, each month more than two billion people actively use Facebook. Ellison et al. notes, for many, the essential task of these sites is to absorb and disseminate personal content about the self (p.19). In many cases, information disclosure about the self is essential in order to acquire the benefits from these technological tools (Ellison et al., 2011, p.20). Thus, social networking sites are essential to seek, distribute and assess information, build networks and maintain relations.
Social networking sites are designed explicitly for targeted advertising because they store and transfer a vast amount of personal data of users that allow surveillance of these data for commercial purposes. This clarifies that the reason for targeted advertising is the main source of profits of most social networking sites (Fuchs, 2014, p.11). Demographic information is used and sold by the networks for directed advertisements (Acquisti et al., 2007 as cited in Trepte & Reinecke, 2011, p.61). As UNESCO (2012) survey reveals, internet companies like Facebook and Google have access to massive amount of data. They have enormous user bases and are expanding their business to cover more and more interactions. Many of the services offered by these companies are free and their business models based on gathering user data and using it for commercial purposes. However, companies tend to keep in secret what information they collect and how. (UNESCO 2012, p.19). Fuchs (2014) discusses the purpose of social networking sites like Facebook and Google to create economic profit. Fuchs further explains that the companies do so facilitating directed advertising by creating and storing users’ data which means that it modifies advertisements to users’ interest. Social network sites are known for invading into their users’ privacy by default (Acquisti et al. 2007 as cited in Trepte & Reinecke, 2011, p.61). Accordingly, social networking sites offer free services to collect a vast amount of data for commercial purposes.
In order to gain social wealth benefits from one’s social network, an individual must disclose information about the self, which might require privacy concessions (Ellison et al., 2011, p.25). Turow (2006, as cited in Fuchs, 2014, p.12) argues that “privacy policies of commercial Internet websites are often complex, written in turgid legalese, but formulated in a polite way.” Turow’s analysis can be applied to Facebook and Google. The complexity and length of the policies make them unlikely that users read it in detail. Google makes use of privacy policies which allow the extensive profit-making surveillance of users aiming of wealth rise (Fuchs, 2014, pp.12-13). By managing the amount of disclosing information, people are able to keep their interpersonal boundaries. However, studies on online privacy behavior have indicated that users of social networking sites tend to be rather unconcerned with their personal information (Debatin et al., 2009 as cited in Debatin, 2011, p.55). Most users have a general awareness of potential risks; however, they do not react suitably. They often have a limited understanding of privacy policies and use privacy settings incompatible or not at all. As Fuchs (2014) points out, “If you do not accept to the privacy terms that permits targeted advertising, you are incapable of using the platform (p.13). Formally, everyone can choose to use or not to use these services, but in practice, it is impossible to live in a modern society without forfeiting tremendous amount of privacy to online service providers.
The development of information and communication technologies and the explosion of social media in recent years have generated a new upsurge of public concerns about personal privacy. However, the social norms and rules concerning personal privacy in the offline world are usually not applicable in the online environment (Yao, 2011, p.122). Personal information is often released voluntarily (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2003, p.50). The ubiquity and user-friendliness of social networking sites encourage increased motivation for users to post regularly. Thus, they reveal large amount of personal data by their own will and persistently contribute to the formation and maintenance of great user profiles (Debatin, 2011, p.54). However, many users are unaware of the negative consequences of revealing personal information to others. Many users do not control whom they agree to see their data, and many users are believed to befriend people that they do not know well (UNESCO 2012, p. 20). Though lack of experience and a false sense of security play a significant role, tolerance of social network users to deep invasions of their privacy remains confusing (Debatin, 2011, p.56). According to Debatin, a critical explanation lies in the anticipated benefits of social networking. Additionally, social networking is now profoundly rooted in daily habits and routines. Protection of privacy in the digital world, therefore, would require users to continually control and assess privacy risks, and deliberately use different strategies to protect themselves.
In modern society, privacy, surveillance, and anonymity online inherently connected. The simplicity and power of information dissemination through new technologies can considerably impact the ability to protect one’s privacy (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2018, p.7). However, a certain degree of surveillance by the authorities can be justified as necessary for defending national security, or for preventing cyber crimes, such as the spread of child pornography (Centre for Law and Democracy, 2012). There are definite reasons to support anonymity online, which contain safeguarding the rights to free expression and privacy and protecting vulnerable groups (Williams, 2006, p.690). On the other hand, anonymity also conveys some threats as it might facilitate crime and other harmful, violent or abnormal actions without punishment. People can libel and insult others, spread hate speech, disrupt social order, target children or other vulnerable groups, and disseminate immoral or violent information or images (Williams, 2006, p.689). Moreover, the use of anonymity might obstruct criminal investigations as anonymity could significantly complicate an investigation (Rowland, 2003, p.307). It can be assumed, that anonymity might allow those who wish to involve in malicious, offensive or criminal activities to act with impunity.
To conclude, the development of technologies, and in particular, the Internet, has brought the potential of socioeconomic benefits by facilitating an exchange of information, encouraging the creation of new products and services, and broadening individual user choice. However, the integration of global networks into the daily routine and technological innovation that generate more capabilities for personal information to be captured, have both enlarged the benefits of customisation to the individual user and raised concerns over the protection of privacy and personal data (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2003, p.11). However, full privacy is impossible in contemporary civilization where people enter social relationships which demand knowing certain data about other persons (Fuchs, 2014, p.7). The concerns between rights and Internet users’ ability to control their personal data have led to broad debates about privacy on the Internet. These debates mostly focus on the lack of user control and awareness about how their data is gathered and used, while emphasising the role of state, companies and business entities in controlling and handling private data. Users of social media required to develop an informed concern about their privacy which implies that users should inform themselves about the potential adverse consequences of social networks upon their privacy and advance their skills necessary to prevent and alleviate or prevent such consequences.
- Australian Human Rights Commission. (2018). Human Rights and Technology Issues Paper. Sydney, NSW, Retrieved from https://www.humanrights.gov.au
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- Yao M.Z. (2011). Self-Protection of Online Privacy: A Behavioral Approach. In S. Trepte & L.Reinecke (Eds), Privacy Online (pp.111-125). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.
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