Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The facade of Facebook privacy

Value Sensitive Design Conceptual Investigation Essay
Jami Cotler

Problem Space/Context

With over 500 million registered users, Facebook has quickly emerged as the virtual place to be. (Gaspary, 2008) People from around the world are flocking to the social networking website from multiple demographics. With this attention comes a social compromise many of us aren’t aware we are making, while other less obvious stakeholders benefit. As the 6th most trafficked website in the US (Gaspary, 2008) this famous website is attracting attention from other groups, such as potential employers, stalkers and parents.

Value(s) implicated

Three central human values are implicated in the system design of Facebook. The value of visibility often is harmful and conflicting with the pursuit of privacy. (Cohen, Winter 2008) Why hasn’t awareness of our privacy or lack of, been brought to the forefront of our consciousness? (Cotler, Class Blog) As a society of automatic opt-ins where is the informed consent?

As a default Facebook profiles are open to everyone in the Facebook users designated network. While we “voluntarily” post our profile, pictures, and personal information on Facebook, many users do not comprehend the social significance and potential implications of this. In a survey of 75 college students, 37% had profiles open to their home network (survey conducted by author and research student). Of this group, 11 were seniors currently looking for post graduation employment. Out of 75 students, over 73% displayed a list of all their friends. The average number of friends was 501.59 with the maximum being 1120. In the pursuit of visibility; namely displaying how many friends a users has, privacy is substantially compromised perhaps without the knowledge or informed consent of the Facebook user. Several students were asked about privacy and some were not aware of the availability of privacy settings.

Privacy can be easily be compromised by a person with some knowledge of web design and a few spare minutes. (Colleague, 2009) Often when Facebook users make their profiles private they will maintain public friend lists in order to promote their visibility. In the survey of 75 college aged students, over 73% displayed their friend lists. While maintaining public friend lists offers visibility it also opens potential vulnerabilities of the Facebook privacy facade. If a user on the friend list has an open profile it can be used as a direct link to the original user. This can be accomplished with basic knowledge of the Facebook URL structures. Even without web design knowledge one can find any postings or images tagged by the person of interest in the open profile of a friend.

Direct Stakeholders

The direct stakeholders are the Facebook users. The Facebook users may use the social network to keep in touch with friends and family. Facebook has become the social “meeting place” for people of all ages, especially teenagers. (Boyd, 2007). Navigating a social network is quickly becoming a necessary and important social skill. (Boyd, 2007). Businesses are quickly becoming another direct stakeholder as they use Facebook for marketing and customer outreach.

Indirect Stakeholders

In a study conducted by Rosen and Kluemper they demonstrated that employers, while not actively using the social network in the same way as the direct stakeholders, are lurking and are often using Facebook to research potential employees (Kleumper, 2009). They found that many employers don’t look at actual Facebook profiles but find a much more revealing disclosure of information from the job candidate’s friends. They will analyze the comments and tagged pictures posted by the candidate’s friends. According to their study, employers also relate the number of Facebook friends to the popularity and extraversion of the candidate. Other employers look for revealing signs of speaking ill of former employers, evidence of drinking too much, or revealing too much confidential information (Sridharan, 2008).

The Internet in general and Facebook specifically can be rapture for a stalker. Where else can you find a list of hundreds of friends of your victim? The amount of information one can gather in minutes would have taken days, if not weeks to gather without Facebook. With an alarmingly high rate of users displaying full friend lists, the potential for a stalker to quickly find this information is quite real.

Parents are rarely invited to their children’s teenage or college parties (personal experience). With Facebook, parents now have an insider view into their children’s private lives. They can monitor and view who their friends are; see firsthand what happens at their parties and even become privy to private conversations. Social networks such as Facebook have been shown to cause tension between parents and children and have also been linked to loss of parental control (Subrahmanyam, Spring 2008).

Value and stakeholder conflict


Facebook Users



Privacy settings are available but implications of not using them are not clear. As a follow up to the survey, several interviews were conducted. The overwhelming response to the issues was notable. All students interviewed were very concerned with the false perception of Facebook security. Many of them weren’t aware of the privacy settings and search settings.

This indirect stakeholder appreciates profiles using default or open privacy settings as it allows them to view and learn more.


Facebook users often want visibility and achieve this through large friend lists and multiple tagged photos. This is in conflict and often compromises privacy.

This indirect stakeholder appreciates highly visible profiles as it compromises security settings.

Informed consent

Consent is the default and a social compromise not comprehended by many.

The ethical issue can be raised that a job candidate generally does not provide informed consent to a potential employer to look at their Facebook profile or related Internet postings. Employers who view this information often do so without the knowledge and certainly the consent of the candidate they are interested in hiring. Some potential employees never get a chance to be interviewed or hired because of information found in Facebook about them. Future employers can also learn of gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. which cannot be legally asked on a job application or interview. This information is all obtained without (informed) consent of the future employee.

Recommendations/Proposed technical solution to value conflicts

In the privacy setting Facebook offers a way to view profiles as a friend would. (See below)

I propose that options to view the profile as someone who is not a friend (either in or out of your network) is also offered. This will provide a clear way of seeing how the “world” sees your digital Facebook footprint.

Social networks have amazing potential to change and enhance the way we connect and socialize as humans. While embracing the capabilities, it’s important to maintain awareness and preempt potential value compromises. Awareness is the key to understanding how to best protect yourself while navigating the social networking highway.

Works Cited

Boyd, D. (2007). "Why Youth (Heart) Social Networks Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.". In D. Buckingham, MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning (pp. Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume). Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Cohen, J. (Winter 2008). Visibility, Transparency, and Exposure. The University of Chicago Law Review , Vol. 75, No. 1 pp 181-201.

Colleague. (2009, October 15). Associate Professor of Computer Science. (J. Cotler, Interviewer)

Friedman, B. K. (2006). Value Sensitive Design and information systems. In P. Z. (eds), Human-Conmputer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations (pp. 348-372). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Gaspary, S. (2008, May 28). Social Technologies and Recruiting - How to extend the reach of your employment brand. Retrieved October 19, 2009, from Career Builder Community:

Kleumper, D. &. (2009). Future employment selection methods: Evaluating social networking websites. Journal of managerial Psychology, 24 , 567-580.

Sridharan, V. (2008, Sept. 14). 22% of Employers Check your facebook profile when they're looking to hire you. Retrieved Oct. 19, 2009, from Business Insider:

Subrahmanyam, K. a. (Spring 2008, Vol. 18 No. 1). Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships. , pp. 119-140.

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