Online privacy is a growing concern as people become more and more willing to provide social networks with their personal information. Many are especially concerned with what social networks do with our personal information, which may (and definitely does) include selling details to companies for use in targeted advertising. However, I think it is important to take a step back from the behavior of over-zealous advertisers and examine our own online behavior.
MetaFilter user blue_beetle said it best when he said “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” The next time you receive a service for free, take a step and back and think, “What does the company providing this service get?” The answer will almost always be advertising deals with other companies. Media attention to social networks selling user data has raised concerns about the ethics behind compiling “dossiers” on consumers. But while it’s easy to get caught up in companies logging, compiling, and selling our personal information, it’s usually not so easy to recognize our own role in this decrease in online privacy. Some information, like your browser history or the number of seconds you stared at those boots, is unknowingly given out. However, we provide the majority of information that goes up on social networks, and it seems we continue to get more and more comfortable with posting increasingly personal information.
It started simply, with profiles that contained a photo, a few favorite things, and connections to people we had actually met. Now we have entire networks dedicated to sharing a user’s location in real time. Two such sites are Foursquare and Google Latitude. For those unfamiliar with these sites, both allow users to share their physical location with other users on their network; Google Latitude even stores histories of locations. While some users may find this a fun and novel way to interact with friends (by the way I don’t get it…if I’m at restaurant and I’d like a few people to join me, why can’t I just text them?), I find it disturbing that users are so willing to share their exact locations. So do Frank Groeneveld, Barry Borsboom and Boy van Amstel, the creators of pleaserobme.com, a site dedicated to re-posting users’ locations.
The idea is that if you have posted your location and it’s anywhere but home, your home is currently empty, and now everyone on your network knows it. What troubles me most is the willingness to share this much information without a second thought. Admit it, most of us have friends on social networks that we haven’t met or don’t know very well. If the ability for a company to know every website you visit is a violation of privacy, then the ability of someone to know every place you went last week is certainly a violation too. And the worst part: we provide that information ourselves. By over-sharing personal information, we assume some responsibility for the death of online privacy. I think it’s time we start to recognize that we have a hand in reducing our own online privacy.
In her article “Are We All Asking to be Robbed?” Jenner Grovel makes an excellent point: we can also unknowingly reveal information about our friends. Grovel writes that many people using sites like Foursquare think nothing of posting a friend’s address when at his or her house. Not a faceless company, but a trusted friend. Friends can tag us in pictures, comment on our walls, and easily release our personal information to the world. It’s time to accept the role we play in violating our own online privacy. As long as we continue to openly provide so much personal information, others will take advantage of it.
What Can We Do?
Over-sharing is not something people do consciously. A really simple way to reduce oversharing of your personal information is just to check your privacy settings. While it is difficult for most people to stop tracking of their online activity, it is relatively simple to reduce releasing your personal information. For example, say I see this article on my Facebook news feed. (All these pictures are taken from my Facebook)
When I click on this article to read it, the app tells me exactly what it will do with my personal information.
This app is requesting a lot of personal information. But many social networks like Facebook are making privacy settings more transparent. It’s now up to me to decide whether I want this app to know my birthday or to be able to track and share what I’m reading. Assuming some responsibility for the distribution of our personal information can help us take back some control. Further, taking the time to examine privacy policies and settings can sometimes give us information about what a social networking site may do with our information in the future. This shot was taken from Facebook’s ad settings:
The fact that Facebook feels the need to ask me for this setting tells me that very soon, they plan on letting advertisers use my name and pictures in their ads, presumably to convince my friends that since I like something, they should buy it too. It only took me four clicks to find this page and prevent advertisers from plastering my friends’ Facebooks with pictures of me endorsing some product.
Fortunately, we are currently seeing an increase in user discretion with personal information. A survey taken by Princeton Survey Research Associates International in February showed that 63% of people have deleted people from their “friends” lists in 2011, and 56% have deleted others’ comments.
While it’s important that we be concerned about how much of our information businesses take, now is the time to begin reexamining just exactly how much information we give out. It can be difficult for the average user to control how some information (like browser histories) is disseminated to companies. But we can control the information that we post.
Top 5 Social Media Privacy Concerns 2012
Princeton Survey Research Associates International Survey
Social Times Infographic for Online Privacy
“Are We All Asking to Be Robbed?” by Jennifer Van Grove
“If You’re Not Paying for It, You’re the Product” by Jason Fitzpatrick