understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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« Remember when we could forget? | Main | “All about us” – personal identity and identification systems »

Is Anything Private in the Age of Internet Social Networking?

posted by:Robynn Arnold // 01:59 PM // May 15, 2007 // ID TRAIL MIX

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In recent weeks, the popular social networking website, facebook.com has found itself at the centre of much discussion. From government and employer bans on the use of the website in workplaces, to sanctions and expulsions against students and employees stemming from information posted on facebook accounts, it seems of late that the site has never been far from media attention. Ironically, this has all come at a time when I have faced increasing pressure from friends to finally get with the program and join the network, being that I am one of the few people I know not already connected. I admit that the above mentioned issues surrounding the website are not the reason I have yet to become a member – I am more simply concerned with the time that would be lost in my schedule to keeping up with this phenomena, having witnessed it firsthand with friends. However, being a virgin to the social networking game, its recent newsworthy attention does give me reason to pause before logging in and signing on, but not for the reasons most would think. In fact, it shocks me that what I see as the most concerning aspect of this new way of sharing and communicating seems to be somewhat flying under the radar, overshadowed by the predominant concerns surrounding lost productivity. The bigger picture that seems to be misplaced in the recent wave of attention is the more concerning issue of privacy, or lack thereof, surrounding information posted in such a forum.

Facebook started in 2004 by a sophomore student at Harvard University keen on bringing the idea of university paper ‘facebooks’ into the technological age. Since then the site has developed and grown tremendously. It now boasts more than 19 million registered users and is in the top ten most trafficked websites in the United States. But it is Canada that can currently lay claim to the title of the nation with the fastest growing membership to the site, estimated at representing 11% of users, up from 5% last year. Canadians, in fact surpass both the United Kingdom and the United States in rates of new membership. The site works by allowing registered users to essentially create a profile and link into numerous networks based on interests, geography, etc. Each member’s profile acts like a personalized website, and can include a list of friends, as well as showcase photos. The page also features a message board that each member can choose to make public. However, gaining access to a friend’s page that is not publicly available is as simple as placing a request that is yielded. After granting access to another user, all control over what the grantee can post is lost. It is easy to see how concerns over posting content and lost productivity of employee and student users has arisen, with members utilizing the site to post thoughts and keep up with relationships. But what of the matter of privacy in regards to information posted on member profiles?

There appear from first glance to be numerous issues surrounding anonymity and privacy with regards to social networking websites. The obvious ones that emanate with all web pages, such as data mining and information sharing with third parties are arguably possible and occurring. But the concerns that are specific to sites like facebook.com are conceivably more intrusive. For example, since a member who grants access to another user has no control over what that member posts on their message board, even personal information not divulged by the member could end up posted on their own page. Not to mention that such information is always possible as being posted on the other user’s page. Even in a private profile, this information becomes instantly accessible to all those having admission, and where the profile is public, the information automatically would be spread further. Another privacy concern surrounds ‘RSS feeds,’ which function to allow ongoing updates, capable of being posted from your Blackberry. Such minute details of daily life and location could prove dangerous in the hands of a stalker. While these are concerning enough issues, they lead to the broader question over who exactly may be interested in accessing your information. Colleges, universities and police have all utilized facebook in investigations, and recently it has been suggested that employers may be interested in looking up potential employee’s profiles as part of their hiring processes. For a site specifying itself as being available, “for your personal, noncommercial use only,” many users are naively being misled. Beyond the issue of maintaining control over and some semblance of privacy in the information posted, the notion of who should be examining posted information is important. While it is arguable that police and school intervention is a good thing, possibly solving crimes and stopping hateful or derogatory postings, should job appointments really be determined partially on the basis of what someone has posted on their facebook account?

The question to be answered then is how do we classify such social networking forums? Are they simply open public spaces where members lose any claim to their privacy and anonymity once becoming a user? Or, should such venues simply be seen as the modern version of private conversation with technology simply providing the global link, and thus off limits to those not knowingly in the circle? One thing is for sure, at the present rate of growth of over 1 million new users each week online social networking sites like facebook.com are not going away anytime soon. Simply avoiding such forums may not provide a feasible solution when trying to maintain modern relations. Perhaps then it is time to think hard about the privacy problems these forums raise and develop a strategy to handle these concerns without stunting access. I have managed to hold out joining until now, but the temptation to connect and reconnect with friends and acquaintances is increasingly tempting. With member friends already displaying my picture and information on their pages, can avoidance really be seen as a measure in maintaining my anonymity and privacy?

Robynn Arnold is an LL.M. Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa.

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