Social Media Privacy

Ariel Flasterstein

Comparative Studies 2367.02

Prof. Seth Josephson

March 11, 2015

The Internet completely changed human interaction and the way the society communicates as a whole. I like to think that everything that gets out on the Internet becomes a tiny archive folder in a sea of folders, all neatly organized for us to access in the simplest of ways. When we search or “google” any word we instantly get hundreds of thousands of matching results. Not only are you getting an immense amount of information from the website but also that same search engine will remember what you just searched for and gather information about you. On most cases with good intentions this information is sold as data for marketing strategies and targeted advertisements.

Sherry Turkle wrote on her book Alone Together about how we expect more and more from machines and technology, and less from other human beings. She believes “…we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face. We are offered robots and a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude.” We might confuse the Internet and social networks as an intimate private space where we can connect with other people; instead we are opening up and “making public” our information. This sense of privacy given by the anonymity of the Internet is nothing more than an illusion as everything, or at least most interactions, we have with the web are recorded and could be accessed by the companies owners, random individuals and even the government.

As written by Langdon Winner in his first line of Do artifacts have politics?: “No idea is more provocative in controversies about technology and society than the notion that technical things have political qualities.” We cannot excuse the Internet and social media from their political realities. There is a lot of power behind controlling or monitoring the Internet therefore there are big interests involved around it. The Internet was created for very political motives, the need of a communications network for the use of the U.S. Department of Defense, but now with the participation of large corporations and the general public in this same network not only countries have political interest but companies and individuals as well. Social networks became a platform for political candidates to address the public and spread their ideological agendas. Winner explained, to be fair with technology, that “Hence, the stern advice commonly given those who flirt with the notion that technical artifacts have political qualities: What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded”. Therefore we cannot blame either the Internet or social networks for its political inherence but on the specific companies and individuals that want the power behind controlling the millions of data stored on the web.

Today most information is kept online, making it harder and harder to safeguard, so the future of social media is linked to the amount of security and privacy these social media companies provide. How much “stalking” or research on one’s social media is considered invasion of privacy? These relatively new ethical questions have been growing quickly as the public has become more aware of their privacy loss. The way companies deal with the legal liabilities, involved with saving and utilizing your information, is through privacy statements.

A communications professor, Joseph Turow, offers some great insight about privacy statements. His research focuses on digital culture and he points out that the general understanding of a privacy policy is that it protects our privacy, which is erroneous. He defines privacy policies simply as the legal documents that explain how customer data will be managed and used by that company. Not only does his research showed that more than half of the “digitally active” Americans do not know what a privacy policy is, but even the ones that try to read them and understand them find themselves delved in a long, tedious and confusing document. Turow said: “These misperceptions are enhanced by privacy policies that are often difficult to interpret, even to the small number of consumers who do try to read them (…) researchers have found that people do not read privacy policies — they’re unreadable. They are filled with jargon that is meant to be understandable only to the people writing them, or to people who work in the advertising industry today.” We assume that any legal document, in this case privacy statements, will protect our interests and privacy but that is not the example on most of these documents but as we normally do not read them we will never know.

There is a similar issue happening between governments and their populations. Under the idea and promise to ensure the safety of its people the governments have both explicit and implicit permission to “stalk” over social media and other social communications platforms such as phones. This particular issue was brought to the public eye most recently by the famous WikiLeaks, disclosing over a million of documents from different governments and their intelligence agencies. In this incident people became aware of the global mass surveillance existing in this world, and although it can be legal it is pretty disturbing.

On a different setting, it has become harder and harder to separate your professional life from your social life. Social networks are a double-edged sword, having your profile out on the Internet can help companies find you as a potential employee and connect you with other professionals to build a business network. On the other edge of the sword universities can quickly judge you through your social persona and an employer’s perception of you might be affected by your online behavior. Even though your social media account might not be completely accurate or a true reflection of yourself, judging a book by its cover is still a strong tendency. This loss of privacy can cause predetermined judgments on other people; at the same time it dehumanizes the hiring processes, as you become your digital self. You become a compilation of pictures and posts that have no context or tone.

These kinds of breaches to our privacy will eventually lead users of the Internet to be afraid of sharing information about them our about any other subject. This would case problems for a lot of companies that their main product is public information and data. Right now there is a lawsuit going on between the NSA and a group of plaintiffs that include the Wikimedia Foundation, who is the company in charge of the Encyclopedia Wikipedia. The journalist David Ingram wrote about the lawsuit and said these breaches “reduces the likelihood that clients, journalists, foreign government officials, victims of human rights abuses and other individuals will share sensitive information with them”. The lack on transparency and anonymity that is embedded on the Internet culture make it very tricky and complicated to regulate theses issues as the amount of information available to everyone is massive and tracking everyone’s interaction with the web is absurdly impossible. This field is largely unregulated and it will only continue to stumble upon more legal, ethical and moral issues, so policymakers should be aware and address these before some irreversible damage has been done to society and the Internet.

Being extremely optimistic and naïve the best solution to these problems come within the companies that gather your information. The more companies know about you the more they should value and take care of that information, in the end it’s the public who has the power to generate the information for these companies or in other words, the “ultimate” client.

In some cases I would not mind to know that the companies are using my information to improve their service or even to offer me merchandise, as long as they were honest on their privacy policies and I know specifically how my information is used. It is the not knowing and that paranoid feeling that someone or something is out to get you that generate the most of the insecurities about the Internet. Companies should try to balance or outweigh their use of our information with the service they provide or by giving us something “valuable” in exchange instead of hiding what they are doing. This “perfect” balance could satisfy both of the parts involved, where individuals would still want to use these social networks and input their information and companies would still be able to make profits out of the data they recollect.

Drawing this ethical line is very complicated and although I do not have an immediate answer I do believe there is a process in which all the involved parties should work on in order to convert this still blurry boundaries into clear rules for the game of social networks. A process where individuals demand their privacy rights, companies make strategies to have both their and our interests as the objective and governments being honest and truthful as to what extent they invade our privacy to ensure our safety. Hopefully the next coming years will clear out the unknowns and shape digital social communications for the better.

References:

Ingram, David. “ACLU, Wikimedia File Lawsuit Challenging NSA Mass Surveillance.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/10/us-usa-nsa-wikipedia-idUSKBN0M60YA20150310&gt;.

Smith, Aaron. “Half of Online Americans Don’t Know What a Privacy Policy Is.” Pew Research Center RSS. 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 2 Mar. 2015. <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/04/half-of-americans-dont-know-what-a-privacy-policy-is/&gt;.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic, 2011. Print.

Winner, Langdon. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” The Whale and the Reactor a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Pbk. ed. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1989. Print.

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