Privacy Issues with Facebook

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14th Feb 2019 Technology Reference this

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 Many people assume that because they set their Facebook profile to private that they are protected from any potential intrusions or spying by outsiders. But there is a great deal of truth to the idea that it is never wise to write anything online that a poster would not want repeated elsewhere. Concerns that Facebook privacy controls are not enough still restrict the openness of many users; images can still be screenshotted and shared publicly by friends. There are also concerns that employers will have the right to demand access to private information shared on the popular social media site.

These concerns have an impact on Facebook sharing. Facebook, according to one source, has seen a 21% reduction in “original sharing” or posts created by users, “as people have become more aware of the downsides of sharing personal details publicly” (Hern, 2016, par.3). The hope is that “letting them have some control over who sees what they post is an important part of restoring trust” (Hern, 2016, par.3). However, public posts can still be searched by other users and even if someone does not actually “friend” someone, they can still be anonymously followed by someone unless this feature is specifically turned off. “Following” individuals can still see the poster’s public posts, so any post accidentally posted for public consumption that contains personal information can be seen.

Facebook in many ways often experiences a conflict of interest. On one hand, to encourage people to remain on the site, it needs to promise that they can carefully curate the image of themselves that they desire to create for friends, or, in the case of business-related accounts, for the public. On the other hand, the sharing of information can be very useful for Facebook regarding its dissemination of advertising and creation of new features. Facebook encourages social connections to develop between users and one way it does so is intuiting users’ location from data and suggesting friends. “The social network even admitted to doing so, claiming to combine that data with other factors, such as work and education information or mutual friends, to offer up people a user might want to connect with” (Fox-Brewster, 2016, par.3). But many people consider the use of such data to be a breach of their privacy and are uncomfortable even being suggested as friends to people they do not know. Facebook, while it does contain tutorials instructing how users can make data more private, also places restrictions such as not permitting users to create fake names, to force participants to be more transparent (Fox-Brewster 2016).

Of course, one obvious objection is why more people do not quit Facebook and refuse to divulge such information. The problem with this is that Facebook continues to be the most popular social sharing network and opting out is not feasible if a user’s friends, relatives, and in some cases business associates are on the network. For users seeking to promote a service, Facebook can be particularly useful. Of course, on the other hand, there is also a darker side to Facebook regarding employment. According to McDonnell (2016), in a survey of “more than 2,000 hiring managers and HR professionals and more than 3,000 full-time U.S. workers, 60 % of employers revealed that they use social networking sites to research job candidates” (par.3). Casual social shots, political posts, badmouthing previous employers, and even hobbies or family issues that could distract the candidate from employment commitments may negatively influence the hiring manager’s perceptions. Furthermore, even though it is illegal to discriminate against candidates if they are planning to have a child, are gay, or are of a particular religious faith, employers can often discern these characteristics from Facebook posts.

In fact, some employers are even asking prospective employees for Facebook passwords to more rigorously screen their accounts, so they can see private as well as public posts (Giang 2012). This is legal in many states which again raises serious questions about privacy rights and social media. Although it is understandable that a candidate might be penalized for posting something that reflects unfavorably on an employer in public, reading private posts would seem to be akin to reading someone’s private diary. This raises serious concerns about the legal status of Facebook, given that it functions both as a private source of sharing even though content can be disseminated to a wider number of users (even if only shared to friends). It is not clear according to current privacy law how social media is protected in many instances, and this ambiguity can make people reluctant to post. Furthermore, some employers are asking that employees not post on Facebook at all, which may force employees to choose between the potential benefits they gain from the connections on Facebook versus the detriments it can pose to employability in some fields (even though in some professions it is necessary to use Facebook).

According to Titcomb (2017), despite Facebook’s insistence that it has provided tutorials to give users greater control, many elements of what are shared with others, including use of apps connected to Facebook (such as Amazon, BuzzFeed, and Goodreads), and the ability to search for the existence of a Facebook profile using Google, are not obvious to everyday users. The utility Facebook provides and the desire for private sharing result in a continual state of tension between Facebook and its users, as well as entities such as employers who wish to restrict the actions of employees. Legal and ethical restraints upon Facebook use continues to be debated in modern culture.

As concerns about privacy online grow, more and more people are contemplating opting out of social media altogether. And for some occupations, such as those in which sensitive material about the job could be unintentionally exchanged online, this has been increasingly preferred. The fact that certain top secret occupations and even some private enterprises forbid employees to use social media may be an additional incentive not to use online platforms (Giang 2012). However, for many individuals this is not feasible. Social media is an important source of personal and professional communication and sharing for some and for others it is necessary for their jobs. Although there are concerns that employers can and will check Facebook pages of prospective and current employees, for certain jobs in the media, establishing an online presence is necessary as a condition of employment. As note by journalist Hern (2016), even though he deleted his personal Facebook account and said he “didn’t miss the site at all” he later found out that as a reporter he “needed an account for work – to manage the Guardian’s technology page, amongst other things. So I made a new one, with accurate, but minimal info. In the end, I had to enter my real name, real email address, and real phone number, to get on the site” (par. 8).

Facebook thus poses additional security concerns in the eyes of many because of the fact that it requires actual, personal data and does not permit individuals to use false information, in contrast to Twitter or Instagram where people can create outlandish fake personas spanning from celebrity parody accounts to accounts allegedly created by pets. This is one of the reasons why Facebook in particular is so often searched by employers, ex-significant others, even stalkers, given that it both requires and invites users to share very personal information in a public way. Facebook has been aware of such concerns, however, and in response has offered tutorials on online privacy to users, which it encourages people to avail themselves of, if they wish to carefully limit and segment the information they share. On one hand, Facebook’s “privacy guide, with that friendly dinosaur, is also more intuitive than others across the Web, allowing users to hide much of their profile from non-contacts” but on the other hand, Facebook is the only social media website that demands that people prove who they are to establish an account (Fox-Brewster 2016, par.8). This is also what makes Facebook so desirable to advertisers. On Twitter, a user may say he or she is someone very different in real life and sponsored advertising targeted at the user may be wildly inaccurate while on Facebook there is a limit to how much the user can bluff about his or her gender, family status, and location information. Even if a user does not post or share much on Facebook, re-sharing various items as well as the individual’s contact list can provide clues for advertisers about how to target and position information (Hern 2016).

Facebook encourages users to check how much of their social media information is searchable and visible to the public, and to limit this if they desire. But some users have complained that these controls are unreliable and Facebook has the technical ability to change them at any time. According to Fox-Brewster (2016): “Last week, I reviewed my privacy settings in an attempt to ensure my profile couldn’t be found, only to discover that the ability to stop anyone finding me by searching my name had been removed” (par. 5). Of course, users can simply reestablish the use of such privacy controls if they have been taken away and unclicked but the fact that users must continually review such settings to ensure that things have not gone back to their default setting is unsettling.

Regardless, it is important that people are aware of their legal rights in regards to social media sharing on Facebook when they are applying for a job or in regards to employer demands to view their profile. This aspect of Internet regulation is still in an emergent state. The fact “asking candidates for complete access to their accounts could open the employers up to liability, because if they then decide not to hire the applicant, they could be sued for discrimination” may limit the curiosity of some employers, given the ease of finding out someone’s pregnancy status, sexual orientation, or religion by looking at their Facebook profile, all of which are protected categories on a federal level in some instances and in many states (Giang 2012, par. 4). On the other hand, employment candidates should still be aware of how their profile—both public and private—might look to a potential employer, rather than trusting Facebook controls blindly. Even something as simple as too many photos on a page of the candidate drinking wine, which might seem very innocent in theory, could become a potential red flag.

When contemplating using Facebook, users must engage in a cost-benefit analysis. This analysis will be different for every individual on both a personal and professional level. Even for individuals who are not concerned about incurring major risks to their personal and professional security, the constant temptation of accessing online social networking sites can be a drain upon their time and mental stability. For others, the concern that their friends may be judging them based upon their posts, particularly in this heightened and polarized political climate may be disconcerting. On the other hand, Facebook does provide an easy way to remain connected to individuals that a poster might not otherwise be in contact with, including old school friends and people with similar interests living far away.

The main professional concern for Facebook users is that something that a prospective or current employer might disagree with may be seen, even if their settings is set to private for friends only. An employer might try to solicit a user’s password to vet a prospective employee’s social media account and even without a password, employers can still screen public posts in which users have been unwittingly tagged by friends. According to McDonnell (2016), the use of Facebook screening of candidates for employment has increased 500% over the past decade. Even apparently innocuous posts like employees drinking in social settings can cast a negative impression.

On the other hand, using Facebook to network by engaging on the pages of professional associations can be extremely useful to job-seekers or current employees. And many employees must post on their employer’s own, Facebook pages. While arguably they could simply confine their posting to those pages, social media savvy and fluency is something which is a learned skill. Someone who eschews social media all of his or her life can be less savvy in terms of how to generate engagement and thus damage his or her media, marketing, and advertising employment prospects.

On a more practical basis, posting on Facebook about a trip or simply posting a great deal period can alert an employer that a sick or personal day was actually taken for a vacation day or that an employee is posting during work hours. Facebook can also be a tool for thieves to monitor, since they are aware that when someone checks into a restaurant or movie that the individual is going out for the night and it is clear that no one is home. “Some Facebook apps that share your location may have more relaxed privacy settings than you are comfortable with and may be blabbing your location without you realizing it” (O’Donnell, 2017, par. 13). Stalkers can also learn about an individual’s behavior, as can an ex who wishes to use evidence of irresponsible behavior in a court of law.

Thus, the risks of using Facebook are very real. They include the potential loss of jobs or job opportunities as well as looking bad in a divorce or custody dispute. Individuals with ill will can use social media information against an individual. They can even simply draw abuse and ridicule and once screenshotted, the original poster loses control over how they are disseminated. Setting posts to private viewing only is only the first step in assuring privacy protections.

Approaches Developed to Address Risks

First and foremost, not simply making all current posts private but all past posts private is vitally important. This is achieved by “…select ‘limit past posts.’ It’s a move that’s not easily undone, so you’ll be asked to confirm that you want your posts made more private” (Titcomb, 2017, par.2). When a user is new to Facebook and still getting a sense of how to use the application, he or she may inadvertently have made public posts about personal information. Retroactive privacy controls undoes this mistake.

A second way to limit privacy is to limit check-ins to different places. This limits the amount of location data that is made public to different web-surfers. Unlike some other types of online sharing, check-ins are relatively minor posts that convey little relational information (part of the joys of connecting online). They do, however, reveal immediate temporal and spatial information about the poster which can be useful to someone who has bad intentions. However, people can still tag individuals and make their location known through their own check-ins; while it is possible to delete these posts from one’s own timeline or to prevent people from sharing at all on one’s timeline, the information will still be visible elsewhere on Facebook.  To prevent this, it is suggested that users: “Turn on the Tag Review and Post Review features so that you can decide what gets posted about you before a post goes live” (O’Donnell, 2017, par. 2).

It is also important to carefully curate different friend’s lists. While limiting posts to friends is one solution, further limiting posts to certain lists of friends ensures further, more secure protections. “Create a list of your most trusted friends and set your privacy settings to allow more access for trusted friends and highly limited access to acquaintances who might end up being stalkers” or to simply limit information seen by work or professional versus personal acquaintances (O’Donnell, 2017, par. 13). This allows users to share more intimate material, such as political information, information about controversial artists the user might like, or off-color jokes that might be appropriate for certain friends only. Even then, this must be handled with care since friends can always screen-shot such posts and share them publically. 

To further limit the ability of people outside of an immediate network of friends to search a user by name, it is also possible to limit the ability to be found by email addresses and phone numbers on Facebook. A user “can also select whether friends, friends of friends or everyone can find you with your email and phone number” (Titcomb, 2017, par. 8). Although this will not necessarily completely limit a potential employer’s ability to locate a prospective job candidate, it can limit it to some degree. Again, however, some potential employees may wish to use their established social media presence to show their ability to function in a marketing position and not all candidates in all fields of employment necessarily need to conceal their Facebook presence.

Conclusion

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, joining Facebook should be viewed as a commitment. One of the most dangerous activities from an online profile standpoint is to join Facebook and not carefully monitor one’s privacy controls and page, including the choice of people to share public information about others. For example, tagging someone in a public photo causes the photo to be both searchable online and to appear on the tagged individual’s timeline. “When people write on your wall or tag you in a status or photo, you might not want some people to see it” (Titcomb, 2106, par. 13). Facebook provides the ability to delete offending items from someone’s wall but users must be vigilant when such posting occurs. Turning off the ability of people to post on one’s wall may be advisable, particularly if friends have different personal boundaries.

Facebook is a potentially beneficial tool for personal and professional satisfaction but like all tools it must be handled with care to ensure that it is useful for users. Sharing some things can be beneficial and generate social connections. Facebook allows users to participate in personal and professional networking. But a user must always be cognizant of who his or her audience might be. For some users, the perceived and real risks of using Facebook may seem too great and they may ultimately not elect to participate in the widely-used online community; for other users, there may be great benefits. But even people in relatively liberal and understanding professions with like-minded friends should think twice about making too many posts public. Big Brother may not always be watching but someone is always watching when someone posts something online, particularly on social media.

References

Fox-Brewster, T. (2016). Facebook is playing games with your privacy and there is nothing youcan do about it. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2016/06/29/facebook-location-tracking-friend-games/#3eb4d26c35f9

Giang, V. (2012). Is it legal for employers to check Facebook? Business Insider. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/is-it-legal-for-employers-to-check-facebook-2012-3

Hern, A. (2016). Facebook is chipping away at privacy and my profile has been exposed.

The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/29/facebook-privacy-secret-profile-exposed

McDonnell, A. (2016). 60% of employers are peeking into candidates’ social media profiles.

Career Builder. https://www.careerbuilder.com/advice/60-of-employers-are-peeking-into-candidates-social-media-profiles

Titcomb, J. (2016). Five ways you can change your Facebook profile to take your privacy back.

The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/03/18/five-tricks-to-take-back-your-privacy-on-facebook/

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