The computer has evolved tremendously over the last half century, to the point that today’s handheld devices are many times more powerful than the original mainframes. Today’s devices are also infinitely more interconnected, with both the internet and other devices around us. This means that information is flying, so to speak, everywhere at an amazing rate. Combined with humans’ social nature, it is no surprise that this all led to the sprouting and rapid growth of social networking sites. Due to underlying idea behind social networking being constantly updating personal information, privacy in the field is an ever present concern. With today’s networked applications, there is risk of some personal information being shared. This notion should, to a degree, be accepted by users, but the real value sensitive challenge is to determine the degree of acceptability this tradeoff creates for the user and their sense of privacy. The entire realm of privacy is a touchy subject, and will continue to be so as our online information base grows.
The social networking swell started several years ago and has grown remarkably to its current state; the big three networking sites, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter recorded 124.5 million, 50.2 million, and 23.5 million unique visitors, respectively, in September 2009
Each user profile on a social network (I will specifically be looking at Facebook, as I am most familiar with it) contains all sorts of information about the user: demographic data, interests, hobbies, organizations, jobs and so on. The powerful thing about this data is that it is largely accurate, according to Sree Nagarajan, founder of Colligent, a company that provides our data to marketers
Of course, privacy is a huge concern when so much personal information is so widely available. Wikipedia defines privacy as “the ability of an individual…to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively”
While investigating privacy in location-enhanced computing, Freier et al. developed a set of features that had direct impacts on user privacy, some of which are applicable to social networks as well: interpretability, awareness, control, scope of disclosure and risk and recourse
Awareness of what information is being shared with whom is an important part protecting your privacy and goes hand in hand with the ability to control the flow of information. Freier et al. classify systems into two categories: invisible and transparent. In other words, invisible systems do not bother users with notifications for their awareness, whereas transparent systems disclose all information regarding privacy. On the surface, it would seem as though transparent systems are the correct design choice in terms of value sensitive design and that users would embrace them; systems designed to be invisible to the user would surely fail. However, studies show otherwise. For example, the User Account Control feature introduced in Microsoft Vista was supposed to address user awareness of when system settings were being modified and provide control to allow the change or deny it. The aim was to preserve the security and privacy of users’ computers, both very important values in most users’ minds. However, after launch, many users wound up turning the feature off, despite the fact that it tried to inform the user of an issue and provide control over how to proceed. Perhaps this was due to a poor implementation, but there may be other reasons. Bonneau and Preibusch conducted an extensive study of privacy features in the social networking landscape and found trends that one would not otherwise expect
The scope of disclosure is very important in analyzing privacy in social networks. Because of the different classes of people that a user interacts with (direct friends, friends of friends, strangers, etc.) there need to be definitions of what different user groups can see. The different classes defined by Freier et al. applied well to the location-enhanced devices they discussed, but the classes Priebusch et al. defined are much more appropriate. They suggest the data classes that are private, used only internally, group, seen by friends, community, seen by users of the social network regardless of friend status, and public, that can be seen by anyone, regardless of social network status
There are several major stakeholders in the system, both direct and indirect. First, the most obvious direct stakeholder is the user base that uses social networks. They are the group around whom the entire system is designed and built, and to whom the advertisers push products. The advertisers and marketers are another large stakeholder, though indirectly. They communicate with the companies that mine the users’ data and sell it to them to provide targeted advertising. The data mining companies are also direct stakeholders. These three stakeholders are on opposite ends of the privacy issue; the users desire more privacy whereas the miners and advertisers want more lax privacy policies. Which side is right is debatable. While user privacy is an important value that designers should embrace in all applications, as the study above showed, most users forgot about their privacy concerns once given a reason, usually an attractive service. The advertisers, on the other hand, stand to benefit greatly from looser restrictions, allowing them to receive more information and allow them to better server targeted advertising. The ethical question is whether they should receive these looser restrictions, given that users would likely still use the services. It would greatly tread on users’ value of privacy, for sure, but would superior ad targeting serve the users’ needs better? Would these ads slowly move from being looked at annoyances to being useful and actually see higher click through rates? These are definite questions to consider and incorporate into future privacy decisions.
1. Facebook vs Myspace vs Twitter. Compete.com. [Online] [Cited: 10 12, 2009.] http://siteanalytics.compete.com/facebook.com+myspace.com+twitter.com/.
2. Buskirk, Eliot Van. Your Facebook Profile Makes Marketers' Dreams Come True. WIRED. [Online] 4 28, 2009. [Cited: 10 12, 2009.] http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/04/your-facebook-profile-makes-marketers-dreams-come-true/.
3. Privacy. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: 10 14, 2009.] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privacy.
4. Preibusch, Soren, et al. Ubiquitous Social Networks - Opporotunities and challanges for privacy-aware user modelling. Corfu : s.n., 2007.
5. Freier, Nathan G., et al. A Value Sensative Design Investigation of Privacy for Location-Enhanced Computing. Seattle : s.n.
6. Bonneau, Joseph and Preibusch, Soren. The Privacy Jungle: On the Market for Data protection in Social Netowrks. Cambridge : s.n.
7. Gonsalves, Antone. Social Networkers Risk More Than Privacy. Information Week. [Online] 8 27, 2009. [Cited: 10 13, 2009.] http://www.informationweek.com/news/internet/social_network/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=219500360.