How Private Is Privacy?
When it comes down
to data privacy, tech bloggers and columnists are quick to point fingers
at none other than Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant, Facebook.
Branding a controversial history of numerous exploitations on flaws
within their database, Zuckerberg has even been contrasted with fellow
media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
“When Murdoch invades your privacy, it’s against the law. When
Zuckerberg does, it’s the future,” reports a New York Times article.
clearly there is a fine line between Murdoch and Zuckerberg and such
was asserted by Richard Collins, a professor of media studies at Open
University who explained that one was “not using the media to advance
their political objectives or in exerting political influence.”
Nevertheless, one question that has struck the minds of millions of
social networking users remains the same: How private is our data in
the ever growing world of social media?
Being the largest social
media platform, Facebook has been pushed back and forth in heated
debate on whether or not their innovative features protect or invade
user privacy. Ranging from the initial arrival of the news feed, the
appearance of facial recognition, and finally to the revolutionizing
introduction of the timeline profile layout, the notorious complaint of
privacy abuse has continued to surface among critics reviewing
The original concept of the timeline, for instance, has carried its
own concerns of potential disastrous outcomes. Rob D’Ovidio, associate
professor of criminal justice at Drexel University, argues that such
innovation, in fact, permits criminals to easily hack into accounts.
“When you’re signing up for new services and they ask you security
questions in case you forget your password — so they can validate you
are who you say you are — they ask the name of your first school or
maybe the town that you were born in,” D’Ovidio explains to CBS.
The easy solution to a majority of threats would be to simply tweak
your settings to accommodate the change and protect your information.
The ability to ‘untag’ themselves from posts or control third party
applications is one way Facebook has improved their privacy settings.
Timeline itself has options to enhance privacy, yet for many users such
settings are unfamiliar, which in turn opens holes for potential
exploitation by unwanted persons. Aside from the worst case scenario of
exploitation, the lack of awareness and reaction towards changing one’s
settings has seen thousands of incidents involving job terminations as a
result of incriminating posts on Facebook profiles.
Interestingly, in an attempt to spread awareness of the need to change your privacy settings, an 18-year-old teenager launched weknowwhatyouredoing.com,
a site which collects status updates by Facebook users categorized by
questions including “Who wants to get fired?” or “Who’s got a new phone
To an extent, its intent may be effective. However the potential
lack in its outreach may not include the portion of users who remain
ignorant to privacy settings or simply do not understand. Human Rights
First CEO Elisa Massimino argues that “Facebook’s privacy policies are
prohibitively confusing, make it difficult for users to protect personal
information, expose to disclosure information users believe is private,
and are changed without adequate warning or consent from users.” Such
failure to initiate user-friendly policy thus further advances the case
that Facebook has failed to provide adequate support in protecting
So how has Mark Zuckerberg responded to the numerous complaints
brought up against Facebook on privacy? He has since argued that
“privacy is an obsolete social norm,” which CNN reports to echo the
then CEO of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy who stated, “You have zero
privacy anyway … Get over it.” In truth, Zuckerberg’s statement reflects
a new line of thought, which buries itself deep into the elaborate
philosophical argument of human rights and continues to controversially
spark debate on all sides.
Facebook is not alone in the continuing debate of privacy within
social media; in recent news, Twitter has entered the media spotlight
featuring a court battle with the city of New York which oversaw a
ruling demanding Twitter to surrender the tweets possessed by an Occupy
Wall Street activist.
While Twitter maintains its support for privacy protection, the
case has also sparked renewed debate into a simple question posed by the
Wall Street Journal: Do individuals give up their ability to go to
court to try to protect their free speech and privacy rights when they
use the Internet?
In actuality, the court’s ruling against Twitter has seemed to
ignore Twitter’s attempt to cite privacy rights indicates that there is a
blurry line between contemporary law and 21st century developments. The
notion that the case highlights points to the fact that that our
privacy can easily be overturned by the government, ignoring any
attempts at protecting user privacy rights.
However, the controversial issue of privacy does not end there. One
of the most highlighted concerns within privacy is known to many as
data collection; a mechanism that corporate giants have learned to
capitalize in order to bolster advertisement. Is our data truly private
if our every ‘like’ or ‘check-in’ on Facebook is kept and distributed
among advertising companies?
According to PC World, both Facebook and Google top the list of
firms that track our data with reports surfacing that involve Facebook
moving beyond the norms by leaving cookies within your browsers that
continue to collect information even when you are logged out.
With over 800 million users, Facebook remains a prime option for
businesses to associate themselves with to reach a large and
far-reaching consumer base. Moreover, being a free service, Facebook,
along with multiple other social media platforms, depends on
advertisements as their source of revenue. This can be directed more
efficiently by means of information that their social networks have
collected for them. In the same line, companies argue that not only is
data collection essential for businesses but the benefits of accurate
search results and relevant advertising is a plus for consumers.
Unfortunately, the Huffington Post reports that few US laws deal
with the prevention of data collection by companies, further advancing
the notion that the legal system fails to stay in sync with our latest
technology. In fact, there is an incredible challenge to push any bills
that safeguard records through the US Congress with giant advertising
companies bulking up their attempts at lobbying against any such
In truth, when a company gets caught, promises will be made to
improve with a “new plan for self-regulation, such as the publication of
privacy policies that users seldom read,” the Huffington Post explains.
Yet with technology always driving forward, the cycle tends to repeat
itself as companies exploit new discreet methods of collection.
However, foreign laws have taken a stand with the European Union
acting as one of the most prominent scrutinizers of Facebook privacy
policy. The New York Times reports that deliberate changes have been
made to the European Data Protection Directive which includes pushing
for a “requirement that online businesses delete all information held on
individuals at the user’s request.”
Moreover, browsers such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox have
joined the struggle against data collection through enabling a “Do Not
Track” option for their users that can only be activated if a website
agrees to acknowledge it. One social media that has agreed to comply
with this is Twitter. This comes months after Twitter and other firms
were discovered to have stored “address book’s names, emails addresses
and phone numbers on its servers for 18 months” within the iPhone,
reports social media news site Mashable.
Over the years, a need to sync both contemporary law and 21st
century developments has begun to manifest in our increasingly digital
world. With the growing realization of the need for privacy, many
bureaucratic institutions have begun to not only peer into the rift
between their regulations and privacy issues but have moved to bridge
and harmonize the unstable association. Yet at the same time, there is
another need to hold social media platforms accountable for their
invasive actions and ensure transparent communication between users and
However, at the moment the words of Mashable CEO Peter Cashmore are
seen by many to remain true: “Privacy is dead, and social media holds
the smoking gun.”