learning technology

Privacy in a Social Media World

Privacy has been in the news a lot lately, so it seems fitting that one of my graduate classes spent this week discussing privacy and security in the age of social media.

Our class used Danah Boyd’s presentation at TechFest 2012 as a jumping off point. It’s worth watching in full if you have the time:

While Boyd’s talk largely focuses on youth, the concerns and implications she unpacks could be applied to any age group today utilizing social media.

It’s a Social Media World

Being aware of what information you are sharing as you participate in social media is a cornerstone of internet literacy. Taking steps to remove or hide the sensitive stuff (and avoiding revealing it in the first place!) is part-and-parcel with being online.

However, that’s easier said than done.

As the recent information breaches demonstrate, we have reached a point where even due diligence and informed decisions aren’t enough to maintain privacy.

When Privacy Isn’t

Consider the recent Cambridge Analytica fiasco. Many of the people who had their information targeted never used the Facebook app that collected it – they just had a friend who did.

Internet-literate individuals should be able to control how much of themselves they share online, but consider: how much time, research, and proactive effort does it take to maintain privacy?

For most of us, the effort and knowledge necessary is far beyond our ability. The average proficient internet user often remains oblivious to things like metadata in images and documents.

Projects like I Know Where Your Cat Lives (in which metadata from cat photos randomly selected from social media sites like Flickr and Instagram have been charted on Google Maps using their location metadata) demonstrate the extent of the problem. No one who uploaded a photo of their cat intended to become a pin on a map – but that’s exactly what happened.

Or consider what happened when Strava published a map on the internet of where people who use fitness devices like Fitbit are active.

While (in theory) users could opt out of having their GPS data recorded and shared with the world, doing so required tracking down a tiny button on their site – not to mention being aware the data was being collected in the first place. I doubt the soldiers deployed to secret military bases in the Middle East were aware that their movements were being uploaded – but they were, and anyone with an internet connection could use that data as an effective stand in for critical military intelligence.

Jeepers, What Now?

I’m not going to get into the things that need to change for internet privacy to become even vaguely attainable – too much to say, not enough time – but I will note that punishing Facebook is not going to prevent another Cambridge Analytica. All social media platforms are doing the same thing – info is something bought, traded, scraped, and sought out.

There has to be a systemic change for personal privacy to be possible.

In the meantime, stay conscious of what information you might be sharing. The internet can be a wonderful educational tool – use it wisely.


Further Reading

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: Nonprofit consumer education and advocacy organization. Be sure to check out their guides to online privacy, database of data breaches, and blog.

ACLU’s Guide to Privacy & Technology: Their blog posts, press releases, court cases, and reports cover everything from social networking privacy to workplace privacy, all accessible from this hub.

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