Social networking, privacy concerns, students, and elders

Social networking sites represent an unprecedented threat to the privacy (PDF) the students at the college. On the order of 83% of our students actively use social networking sites, sharing deeply personal information with friends in what is falsely perceived to be a private world. In the United States 93% of all students use social networking sites with 63% logging in daily, suggesting 83% may be an underestimate. The reality is that their personal data is being held by corporations motivated by marketing opportunities, data that is being used by the social networking site and third parties in way the social networking site user would never imagine.

The lesser of the privacy concerns is actually the corporation which owns the the social networking site (SNS). A far more subtle but vastly more serious privacy issue exists in SNS space: hugs, kisses, penguins, superpokes, flowers, and causes. Welcome to another brave new world with its own language and terminology.

SNS users can send other users "gifts" such as hugs and other intangibles. These are not physical items, and they do not cost anything. The "gifts" are typically little more than icons, some with extended social networking functionality. Other may take the form of what appear to be innocent quizzes, fun activities sent to the user by a trusted friend. The catch is that each of these is actually a third party software application. Clicking on "OK" when someone sends a user a "hug" authorizes the third party application full access to the users profile and data. The application may claim to be written by a high school class as a project at George's Bank high school, but there is no way to verify this. The application could be written by a sex offender in Vladivostok.

The SNS waiver is often in tiny light gray print, and is not visible from the screen on which you get the gift. Few users probably ever see the waiver language, "Facebook is providing links to these applications as a courtesy, and makes no representations regarding the applications or any information related to them. Any questions regarding an application should be directed to the developer."

When one agrees to "receive" a hug, superpoke, or to agree with a cause, the site does caution, "Allowing Causes access will let it pull your profile information, photos, your friends' info, and other content that it requires to work." Why an application such as causes would need access to photos and friends list is completely unclear, except that the application is massing a data for future use. The developers are an outside team, they will have ready to tap pool of people to fund and support a particular cause.

Some gifts actually cost real money, and one buys credits in SNS space typically using credit card to send these gifts. Users actually pay money to an unknown party for the privilege of being spied upon, yet few users ever come to this realization.

Applications are designed almost as a "honey pot" to attract users into using them. Some are labeled "causes." The cause may be a worthy cause, such as the "gift" that signifies a user supports the cause "Men who oppose the abuse of women." That is surely a worthy cause, how can one not say "OK" to that cause? The cause may be fully legitimate, some even have mechanisms that let one donate to the cause. Lil Green Patch (in FaceBook space) permits one to make donations that go to combat global warming, with a recent donation to The Nature Conservancy's Adopt and Acre program - a legitimate and worthy cause. The SNS places the burden of discernment on the user. Based on my limited experience, our students are ill equipped to make discerning decisions in SNS space.

There are a number of emerging trends that suggest cause for concern going forward for our students. Employers are increasingly turning to SNSs to evaluate candidates for jobs. The privacy waivers SNS users agree to in order to use FaceBook, MySpace, and Bebo, offer little protection to the SNS user. Uploaded photos and videos may be available to "non-friends" and third party applications could have full access to all uploaded photos and videos. A compromising image could cause an applicant to not be considered for a position. Within SNS space, there is no way at present to different "faces" in different contexts. No way to limit deeply personal material to one's closest friends, no way to maintain a "professional" face to mere acquaintances.

Just as troubling is that the SNS can retain images indefinitely with the potential for a compromising image to be misused at a later date. The SNS makes no assurance that images will expire out of the system, on the contrary, users usually expect images to remain. Yet even when a user "deletes" an image, there is no guarantee the SNS has not retained a copy of the image, or video.

The flip side is that users are increasingly using their social networks to find jobs and positions in their own field. A user typically has a broad range of friends in their own field, these have become a front line resource in their own career networking.

Another emerging trend is geo-locating (PDF) where a user opts in to physical tracking in the real world. The concern at present is that courts have held that employers can keep track of an employee's location, thus there appears to be legal precedent for tracking an employee using SNS space. The gray area is whether a user who has opted in can be tracked by an employer who has no policy on geo-tracking. Again, our students are ill prepared to make decisions in this area.

SNS sites also now track their users across sites, not just at the SNS site. Indeed, users like this feature. A user can buy a book at Amazon and have their SNS news feed home page tell their friends that they just bought that particular book. News sites like CNN allow a user to feed an article back to their SNS via services such as FaceBook Connect.

The upshot is that users may one day be tracked in both cyberspace and "meat space."

A glance at the college's Internet usage statistics shows clearly that SNSs are the elephant in the living room. Our students are voracious users of social networking sites. Wishing that SNSs would go away or that students will stop using them is to bury one's head in the sand. Education has a role to play.

In the hope that there is an academic use to SNSs, I recently became an SNS user. Just as in email space I found myself spending time debunking the urban legends that our students too readily believe in, I find myself in SNS space educating students about the ramifications of the actions they are taking in that space. SNS space lacks instructors, guides, elders who can play a role in helping students use this new medium wisely and intelligently. At the same time, because of the potential complications of the power relationship, I make a best attempt to follow the faculty ethics guidelines (guidelines are inside an SNS) published for operating in a social networking space.

Social networking sites, as with any new technology, represent both a risk and an opportunity. Fire can burn and fire can cook, few suggest that the solution to house fires is banning cooking. Micronesian societies understand the value of elders and their knowledge, the time has arrived for elders to participate in and contribute to the social networking phenomenon.

Recommended reading: 10 Privacy Settings Every FaceBook User Should Know

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