China and India are the only two countries on Earth whose populations exceed the number of Facebook users worldwide with Twitter and LinkedIn not far behind. According to Erik Qualman in his Socialnomics 2014 video, six of the ten largest populations across the world would be social media sites. As a result of the levels of participation across the many social media sites and the willingness for people to voluntarily share and disclose personal information, people are becoming more exposed than they once were. Whilst anecdotal evidence suggests that privacy is not as valued as it once was, in the context of social media use (focusing on Facebook) it is very relevant to ensuring users maintain anonymity and their data is protected and accessible only by those intended to do so.
Social Media sites are, by definition, web-based services that allow for users to create a profile, develop a list of connections (friends and followers) and view, share and/or create content (Boyd & Ellison, 2007 p211). Internet privacy has been the focus of considerable discussion, particularly given the development of increased functionalities to collect personal information online and the ability for users and institutions to search, filter, tag and collate this information (Young and Quan-Haase, 2013, p.480.). These sites are popular as they allow users to interact with others, share content (both third party and self-generated) and develop an online image/persona (Young & Quan-Haase, 2013, p481). Facebook is one example of such a site, initially developed to connect students at a single university, but having grown to 864 million active daily users in September 2014 according to a recent Facebook Newsroom update (http://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/).
As a consequence of the masses of information uploaded and shared through social media, there are higher levels of exposure for individuals. Looking at how readily individuals share, post and upload personal information, a logical conclusion could be drawn that privacy is not as relevant as it once was. If we consider the changes in technology, growth of the internet and the increased availability of computerised systems to store data and communicate with each other, we get a sense of how different everyday life was thirty years ago. Schadt (2012, p.1.) states that ‘thirty years ago, it was relatively easy to protect one’s privacy and remain anonymous…fast forward to our current day and life – everything has changed’. He goes on to list the various technologies that underpin our new everyday life – mobile phones, GPS, social media, online shopping – that were not available, or at least not as readily available back then. Another logical conclusion that could be drawn is that the ease with which personal information can be shared has given us cause to disregard or devalue privacy.
Refuting both of the ‘logical conclusions’ mentioned above, both Rauhfoer (2012) and Schadt (2012) argue that one of the reasons why individuals appear to be less concerned with privacy is the overriding desire to be involved in social media sites and other forms of participatory culture, and that the choice to provide personal information is made out of necessity rather than willingness. Citing Edwards and Brown (2009) Rauhfoer states that individuals “uncritically accept privacy statements that authorize wide-ranging uses of personal information, often without reading them, not because they are not concerned about their data but because they know that, in reality, their choice is between accessing online services on the providers’ terms or not at all’ (p357). It is an interesting notion that she links to arguments made by Johnson (2010) and Spiegel Online (2012) against a need for any new regulations around the use of personal data – if people are giving up their information willingly, this would indicate there is no need for such policies. She refutes this and highlights that this argument lacks any consideration of the powerlessness individuals feel in relation to their choices about their data being used, particularly in the online world. Schadt (2012, p. 2) supports this, and adds that privacy expectations are constantly changing as ‘individuals today disclose highly personal information on the web and in social networks, loosening our expectations regarding what information should be kept private’.
Rauhfoer (2012) argues that privacy, rather than being irrelevant, is going through an evolution. She states that whilst anecdotal evidence may point to privacy being valued less than it once was, the actual driver for the change of attitude (from the perspectives of both individuals and those that govern the use of personal information) stems from other changes at a broader societal level. These include economic and technological changes as well as the want to be involved in participatory culture. In the article she also touches on the generational differences and how these compare in regards to attitudes towards privacy. As she unwraps the various components of her argument she leads towards a discussion around the impacts of regulations and policies for protecting personal data, and promotes a need for a balance between protecting the information of individuals and providing access to this new and important data in our increasingly information based society, to third parties, such as governments and businesses. Schadt also discusses the issue of institutions accessing collective data (Big Data) and how individuals approve access to this by clicking on consent statements without even reading them. Neither of them disputes the value that big data can provide – consumer insights, marketing approaches, and commercial edge – but both talk of the importance of protecting the anonymity of individuals within the context of big data. Rauhfoer promotes the need for legislation to provide this protection, alongside education from an early age about information rights and obligations. Schadt (2012, p.2) takes a slightly different approach, recommending that the legislation and education not be about protecting privacy, but ‘preventing discrimination’. This is an interesting notion – if we can’t protect the privacy of individuals, then we need to educate people how not to discriminate against individuals based on their personal information. Pavolotsky (2XXX, p xx) raises a succinct summary ‘while Big Data creates many benefits, it raises a number of issues, including those relating to data privacy’.
Away from Big Data, there has been some work undertaken to increase awareness of the value of protecting ‘small data’. Smith, Szongott, Henne, von Voigt (2013, p.xx) state that users are more aware of how to control who can access individual posts. Young and Quan-Haase (2013, p. 480) discuss the concept of the ‘privacy paradox’, noting that despite people expressing concern over privacy online, they still continue to disclose personal information. They undertook a study of university students to gain an understanding of attitudes to privacy on Facebook, and discovered Smith et als position about user awareness to be mostly correct. People are more aware of how to control access to what they post, but do so using a variety of mitigation strategies and maximising their use of the privacy settings available in Facebook. Examples include deleting and untagging content, utilising private messaging rather than public or wall posting and disconnecting people from their friend lists. This aligns to my earlier assertion that one of the driving forces of people appearing to disregard privacy matters is the want or need to participate. What Young and Quan-Haase are demonstrating is that people are willing to mitigate in order to participate. The other notable finding from their research was the idea that despite education and awareness campaigns, some users only became overtly concerned about privacy after they had experienced a breach or attempted breach. Both of these examples indicate that users do value their privacy and will take necessary steps to protect themselves, with education being the key to shifting those users that only react once an issue arises.
Privacy is very relevant within the context of social media, and as demonstrated, is a continually evolving practice for users and institutions. From the personal side, users are generally aware and concerned about protecting themselves whilst using social media sites and take appropriate actions to do so. From a Big Data perspective though, and with regard to the collection and collation of information, privacy concerns are evident, but whether due to powerlessness, or the overwhelming want to be a part of participatory culture, users are generally choosing to disregard their privacy. Given the potential for privacy breaches from the use or dissemination of such information, this makes privacy all the more relevant in social media.
Boyd, D.M., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 210-230. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00393.x
Pavolotsky, J. (2013). Privacy in the Age of Big Data. Business Lawyer, 69(1), 217-225.
Qualman, E. (Producer). (2014, 20/11/2014). Socialnomics 2014. [Video] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxpa4dNVd3c
Rauhofer, J. (2012). Future-Proofing Privacy: Time For An Ethical Introspection? Surveillance & Society, 10(3/4), 356-361.
Schadt, E. E. (2012). The changing privacy landscape in the era of big data (Vol. 8).
Smith, M., Szongott, C., Henne, B., & von Voigt, G. (2012, 18-20 June 2012). Big data privacy issues in public social media. Paper presented at the Digital Ecosystems Technologies (DEST), 2012 6th IEEE International Conference on.
Young, A. L., & Quan-Haase, A. (2013). Privacy Protection Strategies on Facebook. Information, Communication & Society, 16(4), 479-500. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2013.777757