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Author: Jarice Hanson
Date: 2016
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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From personal practices involving the way we use social media to the growing areas of data mining, hacking, and cybercrime that can affect a person’s personal privacy, the social media revolution brings a host of potential problems. Many of the laws that exist to protect personal privacy are tested by some of the newer uses of social media technologies and social networking that haven’t successfully capitalized on the unique characteristics of using personal technologies in public places, or using messages intended for one person to be easily spread to an entire network. Privacy issues involve understanding the forms of media we use to communicate, our personal sense of the value of privacy that influences our behaviors, and the growth of businesses that think of data as a commodity to be bought and sold. With these three elements, it’s not surprising that we often find that our personal privacy is invaded, sometimes without our even knowing it.

The range of issues that bring the term “privacy” to mind also involve a number of concerns. While the Pew Research Center has periodically polled Americans to assess their views on personal privacy, the most recent studies show that people are becoming increasingly concerned about privacy issues. “When Americans are asked what comes to mind when they hear the word ‘privacy,’ there are patterns to their answers … when responses are grouped into themes, the largest block of answers ties to concepts of security, safety, and protection. For many others, notions of secrecy and keeping things ‘hidden’ are top of mind when thinking Page 293  |  Top of Articleabout privacy” ( Madden 2014 ). The leaks of information about the National Security Agency (NSA) by Edward Snowden in 2013 prompted many to think about the role of the government and monitoring personal e-mails and phone calls (wired and mobile) and alerted citizens to the type of information that is gathered about us, and by whom. The 2014 Pew study reported that 81 percent of those people surveyed feel “not very” or “not at all secure” using social media sites when they want to share private information with another trusted person or organization; 68 percent feel insecure using chat or instant messages for private information; 58 percent feel insecure sending private info by text; 57 percent feel insecure sending private information via e-mail; and 46 percent feel “not very” or “not at all secure” sharing private information over their mobile phone ( Madden 2014 ).

Episodes like the Snowden affair have contributed to changing attitudes about privacy and whether privacy can be assured or not, but often assumptions about privacy and our use of technology get us into trouble. For example, most people think that they “own” their e-mail and whatever media content they legitimately purchase, even though they store it on cloud-based services. While personal e-mail messages through an Internet service provider are supposed to be the property of the person who signs up for the service, employers who provide those Internet services actually own the content of anything that goes over the system they pay for. Students are often shocked to find that a university has tagged them for downloading massive amounts of music, films, or pornography, and the student often has to pay a fine for violating the university’s rules. Likewise, employers who make Internet services available to employees have the right to monitor the employee’s use of the computers and servers paid for by the company. Similarly, when someone stores music from the iTunes Store on the iTunes cloud system, the person no longer has access to that music if something happens to disrupt the connection to the cloud or the cloud service crashes.

At the same time, the nature of the portable technologies we use for digital information transfer give us an illusion of privacy. Social media builds on the characteristics of letting people connect to each other or follow news, celebrities, the stock market, or any range of information access that social media facilitate. But when we post information online, we have no control over where other people send it or for what purposes they might use it. We often work with laptops and mobile devices in private places, and even when we use them in public places we tend to think that because we are thinking about personal communication, the public has no interest in what we’re doing on those technologies. But anyone who has ever overheard a very private mobile phone conversation understands how private information that is transmitted in a public place blurs someone’s privacy—either the user, the person with whom they are communicating, or sometimes even that of the bystander. Similarly, if you’ve ever caught a glimpse of what people watch Page 294  |  Top of Articleon mobile phone screens, laptops, or tablets being used in public places—even if the sound is monitored by the person’s headphones—it should be obvious that what we notice about a person’s use of their own technologies tells us something about them, and blurs the idea of private communication.

One of the most attractive features of social networks is that they allow users to participate in online communities as well as communicate directly with one person at a time, but the ability to use technologies and social networks in public places comes with a social cost and an economic cost. From the technological issues of storing personal information that can easily be tracked and traded through cookies or peer-to-peer networks, and simple technical processes such as forwarding messages to people for whom they were unintended, privacy issues have blossomed since the birth of social networking. While every official social network has a privacy policy, sometimes things don’t operate as seamlessly as one might imagine. As the Internet has become the engine of a number of industries in the “information age,” data has become a valuable commodity. Big data companies have been formed that mine data and profit by the intelligence that data reports. In an article titled: “I’m Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web,” journalist Alexis C. Madrigal wrote about using a Mozilla tool called Collusion to find out how many companies were tracking his online behavior: “Even if you’re generally familiar with the idea of data collection for targeted advertising, the number and variety of these data collectors will probably astonish you. Allow me to introduce the list of companies that tracked my movements on the Internet in one recent 36-hour period of standard web surfing: Acerno. Adara Media. Adblade. Adbrite. ADC Onion. Adchemy. ADiFY. AdMeld. Adtech. Aggregate Knowledge. AlmondNet. Aperture. AppNexus. Atlas. Audience Science. And that’s just the As. My complete list includes 105 companies, and there are dozens more than that in existence” ( Madrigal 2012 ). Even after going to a site to register to “opt out” of being tracked, Madrigal found that the same companies were still monitoring his Internet usage. In 2010 the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) set out regulatory guidelines to help self-regulation of the behavioral advertising business. Backed by the FTC, the new principles offered a list of “best practices” for those companies that mined data from Internet users. These guidelines suggest that people be informed that they can request “do not track” services, but there is little way to enforce whether they are implemented are not. These guidelines have been somewhat effective, but they have not solved the problem of the way many social media companies manage data that results in a violation of privacy.

For example, such companies as Google and Facebook often employed opt-out privacy policies. Such policies meant that unless people specified that their Page 295  |  Top of Articleinformation be kept private, the companies made it public. But Google publishes photographs of people’s houses and streets on its Google Maps service, which comes from a different service than those that are linked through data miners or shared over different social networks.

As indicated in the entry for cybercrime in this encyclopedia, privacy violations have the potential to be used for identity theft and, therefore, violate even the terms of privacy agreed upon when a person signs up for an Internet service. Facebook’s security department has admitted that over 600,000 accounts are usually compromised every day ( Goodman 2015 , 87).

One part of the problem is that people often don’t do enough to protect their own information. About 75 percent of people who use social networks use the same password for multiple Internet sites ( Goodman 2015 , 87) and, usually, those passwords reflect their own birthdays, names of pets, or some combination of a nickname or address. Similarly, organized crime is responsible for 85 percent of the break-ins of many social networks like LinkedIn, Snapchat, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo! (Goodman, 2015, 88). “Best practices” for individuals suggests that they change their passwords every six months or so, and that they create passwords 10 characters long (hint: song titles without spaces often provide good passwords that are memorable for the user!).

While privacy matters are becoming part of today’s discourse surrounding the responsible use of social media, everyone bears some responsibility to be informed, thoughtful, and aware of what happens when we use social media. Until effective laws are developed and implemented, and the people who violate those laws are caught and prosecuted, we can expect to see the good features of the Internet and web’s welcoming components juxtaposed against the darker features of systems that allow us to easily transfer personal information.

Further Reading

Goodman, Marc. 2015. Future Crimes. New York: Doubleday, 87–88.

Madden, Mary. 2014. “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era.” Pew Research Center. Accessed April 28, 2015: .

Madrigal, Alexis C. 2012. “I’m Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web.” The Atlantic Monthly. Accessed April 28, 2015: .

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Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Source: Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. .

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6485200137