Social Media Privacy : Who is Watching?

In the last few years, the issue of personal security and privacy on Facebook and other Social Media sites has become an important matter. More and more often, users are finding that what they put on such sites is becoming public information, and being seen by those who they were not intending to view it

Users are finding that potential employers are searching the internet for their personal information and background, and using that as criteria for choosing whether to employ people or not. Social media websites are passing personal information on to third party developers who have no need to use or have access to such information, presenting a potential security and privacy risk.

Facebook aims to encourage communication and socialising amongst its members, which its technologies and systems support. Unfortunately, for all the benefits that the site offers, it also has its share of disadvantages.

Facebook gathers personal information from its users, obstinately to allow them to better interact and find each other, as well as for the purposes of various website applications and functions. Users are encouraged to enter personal information about themselves such as age, background and interests in order to promote contact and help them to find other users with similar interests and the like. In theory, such functions are meant to be purely benign, enabling users and allowing them to communicate and interact. However, the truth is that Facebook users can often find that their privacy is compromised in as variety of ways.

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Inherent Risks of Sharing

In theory, users control the amount of information they can share and make accessible on Facebook through the site’s built-in privacy settings. However, those settings can often lead to a misleading idea of just how much control a user has. While current privacy settings make it easier to monitor exactly what is being shared, Facebook are able to monitor traffic to and from user pages, and can use this to gather information about their users. This includes selling personal information to advertisers to create targeted content for user pages.

At the most basic level, Facebook users can often find information that they post on their pages being used in unexpected ways. Employers will often do web searches for information on potential employees to find information about them and to learn more of them as people. This can have obvious consequences for those people; potential employers might find personal information or habits or participation in groups that they might deem ‘unsavoury’ in a potential employee that would not otherwise be bought into consideration, and use such information to make a decision on employment.

Similarly, there is nothing preventing employers from “checking up” on their employees through Facebook. Information that users make public can be used by employers from checking up on an employee that has claimed sick leave all the way up to dismissal over Facebook postings, even if they do not have anything to do with the employer in question.. Posting critical opinions of an employer or fellow employee can be used as grounds for disciplinary action, even when done outside of an office environment.

A user posting an opinion on their workplace, even if it was never intended to be seen by anyone within that workplace could still find it being used against them. One of the reasons why many workplaces have banned use of Facebook in their offices is to prevent such behaviour, although there is still nothing preventing a user from posting such statements once they are on any other computer.

Another issue that arises from Facebook use is that of identity theft and fake accounts. Users can readily fake identities and register under an assumed name, with Facebook requiring little beyond an e-mail address for creating a new account. Fake accounts have been created under assumed names and used for theft, impersonation and defaming others. While Facebook will remove fraudulent accounts set up under fake or assumed identities, they will not do such until it can be proven that such a page is fraudulent to begin with.

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Personal Responsibility

While as discussed above, there are a number of risks inherent in the use of Facebook, many of them are not specific to it as opposed to any other form of social media. In fact, many of the risks are ones inherent in any form of online interactions. One of the easiest and most important ways that users can protect their identity is to simply act with a sense of responsibility. Many posts are made for the simple sake of posting, with users feeling that they are compelled to post at a consistent rate, even if they have nothing to add. Users are often unaware of the privacy and security options available to them, or are not concerned by them and dismiss the consequences.

The simple option of making a page “friends-only” massively increases the amount of privacy a user has  by limiting access to only those who are known to the user. However, the downside is that doing such may limit potential contacts which could be seen as contrary to the site’s purpose and a user’s reasons for joining. Given that typical reasons include social connection, a sense of shared identity, social investigation and a desire to be known, user apprehension in limiting access to their content can be understandable.

However, at the same time, there is always the risk of disclosing too much information. Many users have a feeling that their actions on the internet “don’t count” and act without regard to the consequences. Personal responsibility is often lacking, with many users posting material that they would not otherwise. Again some users feel obliged to do such in order to maintain relationships or to make themselves known, despite what would normally be seen as concerns over such issues.

In other cases, security and privacy breaches can be caused by wilful and deliberate ignorance or even actively breaching Facebook’s terms and conditions. In spite of them, it was found that many parents were unaware of the minimum age needed to create a Facebook page. Others had actively helped their children create Facebook pages, despite knowing that they were too young to use the site. Millions of children are using the site despite being legally unable to do such due to their parents’ actions. In these cases, the parent has failed to demonstrate a degree of personal responsibility in the matter, again acting in a way that risks personal security and privacy.

As an interesting note, despite its popularity, Facebook rates in the bottom 5% of all American private-sector companies for user satisfaction, with reasons such as privacy problems, changes to the website’s interface, spam and the news feed given for the low satisfaction rating.

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