It's My Privacy (3)

(Third in a series of posts - this one being posted from #SXSW in Austin - that will form a chapter for a university textbook called Communication in Question, Second Edition which will be released in 2013. The chapter is called "Social Networks and Privacy: Should Government Be More Interventionist in Protecting Personal Privacy?" Please read part one and part two first so that you get the proper context for this post. Part four will follow next week.)

But admittedly Facebook and Twitter in particular have worked very hard over the last couple of years to meet users’ privacy concerns while trying to monetize – they are businesses after all – the valuable data they have on the one billion or so people who use these social networks. In August 2011, for example, before the sponsored ads misstep, Facebook made the most sweeping changes to privacy controls in its short history. It embedded privacy controls on the user’s profile page rather than forcing them to find them through a privacy settings page. And the process of ‘tagging’ of people’s names in photos, posts and their whereabouts through location-based services was made safer by giving users more control over who tagged them and how the tags appeared on their profile pages, as well as making it clearer how you could ‘untag’ yourself from posts by others.

In general, though, social network natives, millenials in particular, have accepted that by giving up personal information, they leave themselves open to possible abuse, by marketers, stalkers and identity thieves and to surveillance by teachers, employers and, yes, parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives. Perhaps it is no different for them than ‘accepting’ the risk that when you drive a car you are at the mercy of drunk drivers.

However, accepting a certain amount of privacy ‘risk’ can’t be assumed to mean people are offering unrestricted use of the information.  In fact, in an interview Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, warned that Americans in particular are worried about their loss of privacy:

“Perhaps the biggest price that Americans pay for Internet use is the loss of their personal privacy – in particular, as a result of the growing trend of information-gathering about online behavior.

‘The issue of privacy is simple – if you go online for anything at all, your privacy is gone,” said Cole. “Americans love that they can buy online, look for information online, and join social communities online.  But the price we pay is that we are monitored constantly; private organizations know everything there is to know about us: our interests, our buying preferences, our behavior, and our beliefs.

‘Americans are clearly concerned about this,” Cole said. “Our latest Digital Future study found that almost half of users age 16 and older are worried about companies checking what they do online; by comparison, 38 percent said that the government checking on them is a concern.’"

Granting reasonable and approved (no matter how casually) access is not the same as allowing carte blanche for search, investigation and sale of that personal data, either by government for what it perceives to be security or criminal investigation purposes, or by marketers who use software to become “nimble online stalkers” and follow customers from site to site.

Governments and marketers shouldn’t divine in someone’s allowing limited access to a small amount of personal data so that he or she can exchange images, information, pictures and quips with friends that he or she is therefore permitting these marketers and authorities to venture into that data to test patriotism or slyly pitch products.

“In fact, trusting that your private data will remain private could be a key requirement for everyday, mainstream users to be willing to input all the more of their personal data into systems that would build value on top of that data,” says Marshall Kirkpatrick in a post on Read, Write Web.

So, yes, personal privacy should be guarded on social networks, and today privacy on social networks needs to be protected more than ever.  

Who should do it, though?

SXSW Interactive 2012

It's My Privacy (2)