Privacy concerns with social networking services

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Social networking sites vary in the levels of privacy offered. For some social networking sites like Facebook, providing real names and other personal information is encouraged by the site(onto a page known as a ‘Profile‘). These information usually consist of birth date, current address, and telephone number(s). Some sites also allow users to provide more information about themselves such as interests, hobbies, favorite books or films, and even relationship status. However, there are other social network sites, such as, where most people prefer to be anonymous. Thus, linking users to their real identity can sometimes be rather difficult. Nevertheless, individuals can sometimes be identified with face re-identification. Studies have been done on two major social networking sites, and it is found that by overlapping 15% of the similar photographs, profile pictures with similar pictures over multiple sites can be matched to identify the users.[1]

For sites that do encourage information disclosure, it has been noted that majority of the users have no trouble disclosing their personal information to a large group of people.[1] In 2005, a study was performed to analyze data of 540 Facebook profiles of students enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University. It was revealed that 89% of the users gave genuine names, and 61% gave a photograph of themselves for easier identification.[1] Majority of users also had not altered their privacy setting, allowed a large number of unknown users to have access to their personal information (the default setting originally allowed friends, friends of friends, and non friends of the same network to have full view of a user‘s profile). It is possible for users to block other users from locating them on Facebook, but this must be done by individual basis, and would therefore appear not to be commonly used for a wide number of people. Most users do not realize that while they make use of the security features on Facebook the default setting is restored after each update. All of this has led to many concerns that users are displaying far too much information on social networking sites which may have serious implications on their privacy. Facebook was criticized due to the perceived laxity regarding privacy in the default setting for users.[2]

Social network security and privacy issues result from the astronomical amounts of information these sites process each day. Features that invite users to participation—messages, invitations, photos, open platform applications and other applications are often the avenues for others to gain access to a user's private information. In the case of Facebook. Adrienne Felt, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley, made small headlines last year when she exposed a potentially devastating hole in the framework of Facebook's third-party application programming interface (API). It made it easier for people to lose their privacy. Felt and her co-researchers found that third-party platform applications on Facebook are provided with far more user information than it is needed. This potential privacy breach is actually built into the systematic framework of Facebook. Unfortunately, the flaws render the system to almost indefensible. "The question for social networks is resolving the difference between mistakes in implementation and what the design of the application platform is intended to allow," said David Evans, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. Moreover, there is also the question of who should be hold responsible for the lack of user privacy? According Evan, the answer to the question is not likely to be found, because a better regulated API would be required for Facebook "to break a lot of applications, [especially when] a lot of companies are trying to make money off [these] applications." Felt agrees with her conclusion, because "there are marketing businesses built on top of the idea that third parties can get access to data and user information on Facebook."

Storage of data[edit]

Most social networking sites require users to agree to Terms of Use policy before they may use their services. Controversially, these Terms of Use declarations that users must agree to often contain clauses permitting social networking operators to store data on users, or even share it with third parties. Facebook has attracted attention over its policies regarding data storage, such as making it difficult to delete an account, holding onto data after an account is de-activated and being caught sharing personal data with third parties.[3]

Potential dangers[edit]

Identity theft[edit]

as there is so much information provided other things can be guesse, such as the person’s social security number, which can then be used as part of identity theft.[4] In 2009, researchers at Carnegie University Mellon published a study showing that it is possible to predict most and sometimes all of an individual’s 9-digit Social Security number using information gleaned from social networks and online databases. (See Predicting Social Security Numbers from Public Data by Acquisti and Gross) [5] In response, various groups have advised that users either do not display their number, or hide it from Facebook ‘friends’ they do not personally know.[6] Cases have also appeared of users having photographs stolen from social networking sites in order to assist in identity theft.[7] There is little evidence that users of social networking sites are taking full measures to protect themselves from identity theft. For example, numerous celebrities have claimed their Twitter accounts have been hacked.[8] According to the Huffington Post, Bulgarian IT consultant Bogomil Shopov claimed in a recent blog to have purchased personal information on more than 1 million Facebook users, for the frighteningly low price of $5.00. The data reportedly includes users' full names, email addresses and links to their Facebook pages.[9]

Sexual predators[edit]

Most major social networking sites are committed to ensuring that use of their services are as safe as possible. However, due to the high content of personal information placed on social networking sites, as well as the ability to hide behind a pseudo-identity, such sites have become increasingly popular for sexual predators [online]. [10] However, it was also suggested that the majority of these simply transferred to using the services provided by Facebook.[11] While the numbers may remain small, it has been noted that the number of sexual predators caught using social networking sites has been increasing, and has now reached an almost weekly basis.[12] A number of highly publicised cases have demonstrated the threat posed for users, such as Peter Chapman who, under a false name, added over 3, 000 friends and went on to rape and murder a 17-year-old girl in 2009.[13] A 12-year-old, Evergreen girl was safely found by the FBI with the help of Facebook; due to her mother learning of her daughter's conversation with a man she had met on the popular social networking application.


The potential ability for stalking users on social networking sites has been noted and shamed. Popular social networking sites make it easy to build a web of friends and acquaintances, and share with them your photos, whereabouts, contact information, and interests without ever getting the chance to actually meet them. With the amount of information that users post about themselves online, it is easy for users to become a victim of stalking without even being aware of the risk. 63% of Facebook profiles are visible to the public, meaning if you Google someone’s name and you add "+Facebook" in the search bar you pretty much will see most of the persons profile.[14]A study of Facebook profiles from students at Carnegie Mellon University revealed that about 800 profiles included current resident and at least two classes being studied, theoretically allowing viewers to know the precise location of individuals at specific times.[4] AOL attracted controversy over its instant messenger AIM which permits users to add ‘buddies’ without their knowing, and therefore track when a user is online.[4] Concerns have also been raised over the relative ease for people to read private messages or e-mails on social networking sites.[15] Cyber-stalking is a criminal offense that comes into play under state anti-stalking laws, slander laws, and harassment laws. A cyber-stalking conviction can result in a restraining order, probation, or even criminal penalties against the assailant, including jail.[14]

Unintentional fame[edit]

Privacy concerns have also been raised over a number of high-profile incidents which can be considered embarrassing for users. Various internet memes have been started on social networking sites, or been used as a means towards their spread across the internet. In 2002, a Canadian teenager became known as the Star Wars Kid after a video of him using a golf club as a light sabre was posted on the internet without his consent. The video quickly became a hit, much to the embarrassment of the teenager, who claims to have suffered as a result.[16] Along with other incidents of videos being posted on social networking sites, this highlights the ability for personal information to be rapidly transferred between users.


Issues relating to privacy and employment are becoming a concern with regards to social networking sites. As of 2008, it has been estimated by that one in five employers search social networking sites in order to screen potential candidates (increasing from only 11% in 2006).[17] For the majority of employers, such action is to acquire negative information about candidates. For example, 41% of managers considered information relating to candidates’ alcohol and drug use to be a top concern.[17] Other concerns investigated via social networking sites included poor communication skills, inappropriate photographs, inaccurate qualifications and bad-mouthing former employers/colleagues.[17] However, 24% manager claimed that information found on a social networking site persuaded them to hire a candidate, suggesting that a user image can be used in a positive way.

While there is little doubt that employers will continue to use social networking sites as a means of monitoring staff and screening potential candidates, it has been noted that such actions may be illegal under in jurisdictions. According to, employers who use Facebook or Myspace could potentially face legal action:

If a potential employer uses a social networking site to check out a job candidate and then rejects that person based on what they see, he or she could be charged with discrimination.[18] On August 1, 2012, Illinois joined the state of Maryland (law passed in March 2012) in prohibiting employer access to social media web sites of their employees and prospective employees. A number of other states that are also considering such prohibitory legislation (California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington), as is the United States Congress. In April 2012, the Social Networking Online Protection Act (2012 H.R. 5050) was introduced in the United States House of Representatives, and the Password Protection Act of 2012 (2012 S. 3074) was introduced in the United States Senate in May 2012, which prohibit employers from requiring access to their employees’ social media web sites.[19]

Monitoring of social networking sites is not limited to potential workers. Issues relating to privacy are becoming an increasing concern for those currently in employment. A number of high-profile cases have appeared in which individuals have been sacked for posting comments on social networking which have been considered disparaging to their current employers or fellow workers. In 2009, sixteen-year-old Kimberley Swann was sacked from her position at Ivell Marketing and Logistics Limited after describing her job as ‘boring’.[20] In 2008, Virgin Atlantic sacked thirteen cabin crew staff, after it emerged they used had criticised the company’s safety standards and called passengers ‘chavs’ on Facebook.[21] There is no federal law that we are aware of that an employer is breaking by monitoring employees on social networking sites. In fact, employers can even hire third-party companies to monitor online employee activity for them. According to an article by Read Write Web employers use the service to "make sure that employees don't leak sensitive information on social networks or engage in any behavior that could damage a company's reputation."[5] While employers may have found such usages of social networking sites convenient, complaints have been put forward by civil liberties groups and trade unions on the invasive approach adopted by many employers. In response to the Kimberley Swann case, Brendan Barber, of the TUC union stated that:

Most employers wouldn't dream of following their staff down the pub to see if they were sounding off about work to their friends," he said. "Just because snooping on personal conversations is possible these days, it doesn't make it healthy."

Monitoring of staff’s social networking activities is also becoming an increasingly common method of ensuring that employees are not browsing websites during work hours. It was estimated in 2010 that an average of two million employees spent over an hour a day on social networking sites, costing potentially £14 billion.[22]

Online Victimization[edit]

Social networks are designed for individuals to socially interact with other people over the Internet. However, some individuals engaged in undesirable online social behaviors creating negative impacts on other people’s online experiences. It has created a wide range of online interpersonal victimization. Some studies have shown that social network victimization appears largely in adolescent and teens, and the type of victimizations includes sexual advances and harassments.[23] Recent research has reported approximately 9% of online victimization involves in social network activities.[23] It has been noted that many of these victims are girls who have sexually appealed over these social network sites.[23] Research concludes that many of social network victimizations are associated with user behaviors and interaction with one another. Negative social behaviors such as aggressive attitudes and discussing sexual related topics motivate the offenders to achieve their goals.[23] All in all, positive online social behaviors is promoted to help reduce and avoid online victimization.


While the concept of a worldwide communicative network seems to adhere to the public sphere model, market forces control access to such a resource. In 2010 investigation by The Wall Street Journal found that many of the most popular applications on Facebook were transmitting identifying information about users and their friends to advertisers and internet tracking companies, which is a violation of Facebook's privacy policy. [24]The Wall Street Journal analyzed the ten most popular Facebook apps, including Zynga's FarmVille, with 57 million users, and Zynga's Mafia Wars with 21.9 million users, and found that they were transmitting Facebook user IDs to data aggregators. {[24]Every online move leaves cyber footprints that are rapidly becoming fodder for research without you ever realizing it. Using social media for academic research is accelerating and raising ethical concerns along the way, as vast amounts of information collected by private companies — including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter — are giving new insight into all aspects of everyday life. Our social media “audience” is bigger than we actually know; our followers or friends aren’t the only ones that can see information about us. Social media sites are collecting data from us just by searching something such as “favorite restaurant” on our search engine. Facebook is transformed from a public space to a behavioral laboratory," says the study, which cites a Harvard-based research project of 1,700 college-based Facebook users in which it became possible to "deanonymize parts of the data set," or cross-reference anonymous data to make student identification possible.[25] Some of Facebook's research on user behavior found that 71% of people drafted at least one post that they never posted.[25]Another analyzed 400,000 posts and found that children's communication with parents decreases in frequency from age 13 but then rises when they move out.[25]

Privacy Concerns[edit]

Twitter has admitted that they have scanned and imported their user's phone contacts onto the website database so that they can learn more about their users. Most users were unaware that Twitter is created this way for new users to search for their friends. Twitter has stated that they will have their privacy guidelines illustrated more clearly in the future.[26]

More than 1,000 companies are waiting in line to get access to millions of tweets from users that are using the popular social networking website. Companies believe that by using data mining technologies they would be able to gather important information that can be used for marketing and advertising.[27]

Institutional concerns[edit]

A number of institutions have expressed concern over the lack of privacy granted to users on social networking sites. These include schools, libraries, and Government agencies.


Libraries in the particular, being concerned with the privacy of individuals, have debated on allowing library patrons to access social networking sites on public library computers. While only 19% of librarians reportedly express real concern over social networking privacy, they have been particularly vocal in voicing their concerns.[28] Some have argued that the lack of privacy found on social networking sites is contrary to the ethics supported by Library organisations, and the latter should thus be extremely apprehensive about dealing with the former.[28] Supporters of this view present their argument from the code of ethics held by both the American Library Association and the UK based Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, which affirms a commitment to upholding privacy as a fundamental right.[28] In 2008, a study was performed in fourteen public libraries in the UK which found that 50% blocked access to social networking sites.[29] Many school libraries have also blocked Facebook out of fear that children may be disclosing too much information on Facebook. However, as of 2011, Facebook has taken efforts to combat this concern by deleting profiles of users under the age of thirteen.[30]

Response to criticism[edit]

Many social networking organisations have responded to criticism and concerns over privacy. It is claimed that changes to default settings, the storage of data and sharing with third parties have all been updated and corrected in the light of criticism, and/or legal challenges.[31] However, many critics remain unsatisfied, noting that fundamental changes to privacy settings in many social networking sites remain minor, and argue that social networking companies prefer to criticise users rather than adapt their policies.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Gross, R. and Acquisti, A. 2005. Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networking Sites (The Facebook Case).[online]. p. 2. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011].
  2. ^ Kelly, S. Identity ‘at risk’ on Facebook. BBC News. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011].
  3. ^ Bangeman, E. 2010. Report: Facebook caught sharing secret data with advisers. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  4. ^ a b c Gross, R. and Acquisti, A. 2005. Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networking Sites (The Facebook Case).[online]. p. 8. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011].
  5. ^ a b "Social Networking Privacy: How to be Safe, Secure and Social - Privacy Rights Clearinghouse". 
  6. ^ 2011. Social Network Profiles Help Identity Thieves Guess Your Social Security Number. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  7. ^ MSNBC. 2011. Kids’ pictures on Facebook exposes them to identity theft. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  8. ^ myers, alexandra. "After a Twitter hack, ‘biebermyballs’ becomes a popular hashtag". daily caller. Retrieved 30 March 2012. 
  9. ^ "Bogomil Shopov, Bulgarian Tech Consultant: 1 Million Users' Private Facebook Data Available Online For $5 (VIDEO)". The Huffington Post. 
  10. ^ [Accessed: 24 April 2011]
  11. ^ Facebook Help Center. 2011. How can I report a convicted sex offender? [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  12. ^ Randall, D. and Richards, V. Facebook can ruin your life. And so can Myspace, Bebo…. The Independent [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  13. ^ Smith, C. 2010. Serial Sex Offender Admits Using Facebook To Rape and Murder Teen. The Huffington Post. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  14. ^ a b "Social Media and Cyber Stalking Facts - Advice and Tips on Staying Protected". 
  15. ^ Malone, S. 2005. CLARIFICATION: AOL Instant messenger users ‘waive right to privacy’. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  16. ^ Bennet, J. n.d. Internet Memes. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  17. ^ a b c Havenstein, H. 2008. One in five employers uses social networks in hiring process. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  18. ^ Bowers, T. 2008. Employers who check out job candidates on MySpace could be legally liable. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  19. ^ "Illinois Becomes Second State to Prohibit Employers from Requiring Access to Employees’ and Prospective Employees’ Social Media Web Sites". The National Law Review. 2012-08-23. Retrieved 2012-08-23. 
  20. ^ Sky News. 2009. Sacked for Calling Job Boring on Facebook. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  21. ^ BBC News. 2008. Crew sacked over Facebook posts. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  22. ^ Roythornes Solicitors. 2011. The employment law dangers of Social Networking. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]
  23. ^ a b c d Henson, Bill; Reynes W. Reyns; Bonnie S. Fisher (3 March 2011). "Security in the 21st century: examining the link between online social network activity, privacy, and interpersonal victimization" (PDF). Criminal Justice Review 36 (253). doi:10.1177/0734016811399421. Retrieved 29 March 2013. 
  24. ^ a b Lori Andrews (10 January 2012). I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4516-5051-8. 
  25. ^ a b c Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY (8 March 2014). "Social media research raises privacy and ethics issues". USA TODAY. 
  26. ^ "Twitter admits peeking at address books, announces privacy improvements". sky news. 16 February 2012. Retrieved 30 March 2012. 
  27. ^ gladdis, keith (28 February 2012). "Twitter secrets for sale: Privacy row as every tweet for last two years is bought up by data firm". London: daily mail. Retrieved 30 March 2012. 
  28. ^ a b c Fernandez, P. 2009. Online Social Networking Sites and Privacy: Revisiting Ethical Considerations for a New Generation of Technology. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  29. ^ McMenemy, D. 2008. Internet access in UK public libraries: notes and queries from a small scale study [abstract only]. Library Review [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  30. ^ Smith, C. 2011. Facebook Removes 20, 000 Underage Users Every Day. The Huffington Post. [online]. Available at: [1] [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  31. ^ Shepherd and Wedderburn. 2010. Facebook amend privacy settings following an unpleasant poke from EU privacy protectors. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]
  32. ^ Saint, N. 2010. Facebook’s Response to Privacy Concerns: “If you’re not Comfortable Sharing, Don’t”. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 April 2011]

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