Internet privacy especially in social networks has become one of the burning topics within the social debate in the UK (Dutton et al. 2009). It seems that in Britain the attitude towards information-protection does not live up to the European expectations. Therefore, unawareness among undergraduate students and teenagers is starting to be a priority issue for the government (Internet Society 2010). However, definite solutions to this problem are still to come and perhaps it could be too late by the time someone reacts.
This coursework will explore the current social online attitudes towards social networking in terms of privacy-protection focusing on Facebook. In so doing, a concise approach to social networks as potential thread elements will be given. Furthermore, topic-related governmental action will be exposed in light of the results for the Internet Society Privacy Survey 2010. Finally, the conclusion of this work will embrace a summary of the key points alongside with the hypothesis for this coursework. To perform this task, this coursework will take as given essential knowledge for the online situation of social networks, the existing different types and its intended audience with the aim of achieving a deeper insight into the far-reaching effects of social media within their users’ privacy.
2. The dark side of social networking
From the last decade onwards, the Internet seems to have activated an enormous downward spiral that is feeding back into millions of individuals’ personal data. This universal phenomenon called social media1 has become deeply engrained within the British society engaging more that 24 million users in social networks (SNS henceforth) such as Facebook (Figure 1).
Figure 1: UK users enrolled in SNS
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This social fashion as any other trend involving people has a distinctive dark side. Nevertheless, it seems that there are no eager attitudes whatsoever (or simply individuals pretend not to see) for this [allegedly] potential thread to be unmasked (Gross and Acquisti 2005; Dwyer et al. 2007). Gradually, this behaviour is giving rise to significant confidentiality concerns. Hence, it is becoming slowly understood that the rules of the privacy game have changed on the Internet. On this view, it is fairly believable that Rosen’s predictions eleven years ago were addressed in the right direction:
“There's no reason to fear the disclosure of intimate information to faceless Web sites as long as those Web sites have no motive or ability to collate the data into a personally identifiable profile that could be disclosed to anyone you actually know. By contrast, the prospect that your real identity might be linked to permanent databases of your online -- and off-line -- behavior is chilling, because the databases could be bought, subpoenaed or traded by employers, insurance companies, ex-spouses and others who have the ability to affect your life in profound ways” (2000).
After saying this, an overarching social problem has emerged in the UK caused by an overfed social media that has become an endless commercial repository of personal information 2 whereby data is constant and cumulative3 (Barnes 2006). Rothfeder describes the [erroneous] online behaviour towards this business-related increasing world as:
“We go through life inadvertently dropping crumbs of data about ourselves. Following right behind us are powerful vacuum cleaners—computers accessed by marketers, snoops, and even criminals—sucking up the crumbs, labeling them, and storing them for future reference.” (2008: 119).
Unaware of this issue, still the majority of users are unstoppably disclosing personal information in SNS that could negatively affect their public image and personal lives –amongst other kinds of overwhelming social and personal outcomes (Hempel and Lehman 2005). To put it bluntly, the harmful impact of social media on British society is becoming clearly discernible throughout the national press. Several contentious cases during the past years epitomize the dire potential of SNS such as Facebook: Creditors that track down clients’ assets on SNS (NPR 2010), insurance companies that reject compensation claims due to pictures on Facebook (ABC News 2009), marital breakdowns stemming from the monitoring of their partner’s online activity (The Telegraph 2010), employers that reject job candidates after visiting their personal profiles (The Telegraph 2010), stalkers that have stabbed their ex-wives after they have changed their relationship status to ‘single’ (Mail Online 2009), people sued for libel after creating fake profiles (Reuters 2008) and teenagers haunted by predators (Guardian 2010).
3. A much needed Internet literacy
Currently, young individuals [and undergraduate students] are the major focus of the privacy concerns (Utz and Krämer 2009). This group of people escaping from their parents’ surveillance find SNS the ideal environment to conduct their [early and late] adolescence (Figure 2). That is to say, SNS are a place where to construct their identities, experiment with social interaction and as Livingstone notes, a setting where “[to] present a reflexive project of the self in a social context” (2008: 5). Notwithstanding, one of the foremost reasons why these group of people is on the scope of schools [and universities] is that they lack in Internet privacy literacy (Dwyer et al. 2007; Boyd 2010). Furthermore, the essential knowledge in addition to the online behavioural patterns for the use of SNS is adopted by mimicking their friends and not their teachers or parents (Barnes 2006).
Figure 2: UK Facebook age split
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This uneducated 4 use of SNS is prompting a privacy paradox5 in which young individuals do not seem to realize that they are writing ‘open diaries’ –rather than [locked] private personal entries therefore exposing themselves [heedlessly] to ‘covetous’ third parties. To put it in a nutshell, as Barnes states, “Because schools, college admissions officers, and future employers are checking these sites, personal information and pictures revealed online can directly influence a student’s educational, employment and financial future.” (2006: 7). On this vein, Jones and Soltren conducted in 2005 a survey among students from MIT, Harvard University, University of Oklahoma and NYU with the aim to explore how SNS –specifically Facebook– impacts on user’s privacy. They found that:
“The information most relevant to advertisers would likely be demographic data (age, gender, location), as paired with interests. In general, over 70% of users are willing to disclose both categories of information, making the Facebook a valuable trove of demographic data for marketers. In addition, this database of interests could easily be cross-referenced by a database from a third-party vendor, matching the details about users' interests and current location to addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers.” (2005: 16).
Additionally to these details, they also noticed that users of Facebook outpour a vast amount of personal data without restricting it. As a matter of fact, the apprehension of privacy among the surveyed students unveiled that 23.1% is not concerned at all, 35.5 % barely concerned, 31.6 % somewhat concerned, 6% quite concerned and only 3.6% very concerned (Jones and Soltren 2005).
Following [equally] the previous American example, overexposure has become also a serious issue to deal with within the [young] British society (BBC News 2009). Specialists strongly believe that the first step towards protecting the safety of teenagers in public SNS starts with the parents (Sullivan 2005; Downes 2006). Nevertheless, as mentioned above this is a grey area for adults, whose social media awareness is minimal and consequently are unable to instruct their children in this [unsafe] field (Hutchison and Stafford 2005). Barnes goes beyond to the familiar responsibilities and proposes social solutions, technical solutions, and legal solutions to approach the protection of privacy (Barnes 2006). However, as far as the legal solutions are concerned, the potential mistreatment of identity information by teenagers is still not a priority topic of discussion for the government in the UK. According to the Internet Society Privacy Survey 2010 6 stakeholders in England are ‘despairing’ and not doing anything to direct privacy issues (Internet Society 2010). Moreover, this survey also reveals that the current main preoccupations in the UK are centred on ID cards, identity theft and banking and access to IP Address as personal information. Interestingly enough, unlike the UK on the other side of the Atlantic, the USA places social networking privacy on top of its current discussion list and suggests an implementation of laws to force private companies to treat personal data in the same degree as the government guards its information.
1 The lexical item ‘social media’ covers social software and social networking.
2 A study directed by Dwyer et al. (2007) reveal that the most shared information in SNS such as Facebook is personal photograph (98.6% of users), real name (100%), hometown (92.8%), e-mail address (94.2%), mobile phone number (37.7%), relationship status (73.9%), sexual orientation (78.3%) and instant messenger screen name (71%).
3 Social media stores a collection of data rather than overwriting them.
4 Again, Dwyer et al. point out in the conclusion for their study that “the interaction of trust and privacy concern in social networking sites is not yet understood to a sufficient degree to allow accurate modeling of behavior and activity.” (2007: 7)
5 Barnes approaches the privacy paradox in terms of give-and-seeking by asserting that “teenagers reveal their intimate thoughts and behaviours online and, on the other hand, government agencies and marketers are collecting personal data” (2006: 3). Yet, the privacy paradox has a second more interesting side in which users concerned about their privacy still disclose concise personal information on their profiles (Utz & Krämer 2009).
6 The principal goal of this survey is to collect information from different countries with regard to the data protection and privacy within their regulatory domain.