Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Does Social Networking and Technological Innovation Represent the End of Privacy?

I know, that's a loaded question that deserves a lot more than a yes or no answer. One thing is certain however, with the explosion in popularity of social networking sites like Facebook (and that's to say nothing of company's like Google and the array of privacy challenges many of its products represent), the ability to protect ones personal privacy has become increasingly challenging.

As I have asserted here in the past, it goes without saying that tools like Facebook reveal a considerable amount of information about a user's lifestyle, interests, and goals. Depending on the user's settings, co-workers, employers, and certain family members could have access to information about the user that may be better left unknown.

Recent Facebook flaps highlights growing concerns about the increasingly sophisticated technologies used to track online activities in an effort to more precisely target advertising. What has also become apparent is that these social networking sites have not exactly been forthcoming about how much user information they harvest, share, and with whom.

However, in recent months users have been becoming more and more conscious of privacy concerns, as Facebook has been criticized for not allowing people to permanently delete their accounts and personal information from the site as well as their use of "Beacon" (no longer in use) - a technology that tracks user's online purchases and informs their friends.

The controversy raised by Facebook's use of the Beacon technology - and the subsequent victory of privacy advocates - has helped ignite a larger debate regarding the largely hidden and growing problem of online consumer-tracking and information-sharing.

And this larger discussion - like what does the loss of privacy mean in the age of Facebook - was addressed yesterday in the New York Times by Miyase Christensen, an associate professor of media and communication studies at Karlstad University, Sweden.

The article is entitled "Watching You Watching Me":

New research suggests that 25 percent of people in Britain suffer from some form of paranoia, probably because of a combination of urbanization, globalization, migration, wealth disparity and the media. So would it be right to assume that paranoia will worsen as we move toward complex personal surveillance, the result of the heavy use of social networking sites such as Facebook?


On the Internet, surveillance is commerce. The number of Facebook users has soared, followed by MySpace and Twitter, to the joy of marketers. Online industries look for new trends and respond by incorporating social networking features, such as personal profiles, into sites such as YouTube.

The popularity of social networking may be simply a fraternal exchange, or innocent “friendly encounters of the voyeuristic kind.” But it can also be “complicit surveillance” committed by the individual and sinisterly co-opted.

With about 300 million users, a speculative value of $15 billion and advertisers eavesdropping on every move of members, Facebook deserves special attention in the Net-watch society. People use it for everything from political campaigning to post what they ate for dinner. Many users may object to Facebook’s exploitation of their content for commercial purposes, but most go on using it anyway for personal or practical reasons.

Not all. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a public interest research group in Washington, threatened earlier this year to file a formal complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission about a change in the terms of use that Facebook had secretly implemented, which included rights to information even from cancelled accounts.


Yet the actual extent of commercial surveillance on Facebook remains murky. According to its privacy policy, Facebook retains the right to collect information about members from other sources such as newspapers, instant messaging services and blogs — “to provide you with more useful information and a more personalized experience.”

Most usersaccept Facebook’s default settings without considering what this means in terms of privacy and or data use. One survey suggests that 45 percent of employers in the United States admit to checking social-networking-site profiles of prospective employees. The actual number might be higher.

By using Facebook, non-American users also consent to have their personal data transferred to and processed in the United States. Users are not notified when and how their data is used. In 2008, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, a privacy group, filed a complaint against Facebook for violating Canadian privacy laws. In the United States, some schools and colleges now try to control content on their students’ personal blogs or Facebook pages, raising new questions about freedom of speech.


Yet in the absence of effective regulatory mechanisms, using online social media can be risky. The European Commission warned this year that data collection from such sites might lead to a flood of unsolicited advertising or the use of by the governments in ways that compromise civil liberties. There is a complex, multi-layered interplay between the surveillance embedded in communication technologies and everyday personal communications. This is giving way to a new surveillance, where the act is consensual and the guilt (of convenience and pleasure with a cost) is shared.

Click here to read more.

It appears, as the author asserts, and that I have many times here, regulation simply has not kept up with technologically innovation. I think we can all agree that on their own, it is highly unlikely that politicians will lead the charge to regulate big business in order to protect consumer privacy - thus the responsibility for raising awareness and demanding action falls on advocacy groups.

This is no major revelation of course, but it is worth reminding ourselves of on a regular basis because there are an increasing array of ways in which our privacy can be violated, and no one will protect us unless we demand it first.

1 comment:

Wilma said...

It is true that it is a must for anyone to undergo a background check, in these changing times, we never know what kind of person that we interact with. There are lots of online people search engines that offers services that gives us a reliable and complete background check on someone that we want to know. With just a few clicks, we can get results all about the person.