Social Networking Privacy
If you are one of the hundreds of millions of people using social networks, there’s a good chance you’re linked to your long lost childhood best friend, your college roommate, your boss, and your significant other through an online relationship. The information you share with your online contacts allows you to keep in touch without much effort. But who else is looking at that information? And what are they doing with it?
Online social networks are websites that allow users to build connections and relationships to other Internet users. Social networks store information remotely, rather than on a user’s personal computer. Social networking can be used to keep in touch with friends, make new contacts, and find people with similar interests and ideas. Research shows that the number of adult Internet users who have a social networking profile more than quadrupled from 2005 to 2008. By October 2012, the social network Facebook had exceeded a billion active accounts worldwide.
There are others, besides friends and acquaintances, interested in the information people post on social networks. Identity thieves, scam artists, debt collectors, stalkers, and corporations looking for a market advantage are using social networks to gather information about consumers. Companies that operate social networks are themselves collecting a variety of data about their users, both to personalize the services for the users and to sell to advertisers.
There are two kinds of information that can be gathered about a user from a social network: information that is shared and information gathered through electronic tracking. Information a user shares may include photos, age, gender, education, employment, status updates, contacts, interests, and geographical location. Social networks don’t necessarily guarantee the security of the information uploaded to a profile, even when the posts are set to be private.
Information can be gathered through electronic tracking using “cookies”, which are short strings of text stored on the user’s hard drive. Some of the purposes of cookies may include tracking the websites a user has viewed, storing information associated with specific websites (such as items in a shopping cart), tracking movement from one website to another, and building a profile around a user. In fact, a study found that the unique identifying code assigned to users by social networks can be matched with behavior tracked by cookies. This means that advertisers and others are able to use information gleaned from social networks to build a profile of a user’s life.
When posting information to a social network, a user probably expects authorized contacts to be able to view it. But who else can see it, and what exactly is visible? Entities that collect personal information for legal purposes include advertisers interested in personal information so they can better target their ads to those most likely to be interested in the product, and third-party software developers who incorporate information to personalize applications, such as online games that interact with the social network.
Those collecting personal information for illegal purposes are identity thieves who obtain personal information either based on information a user posts or that others post about the user, and other online criminals, such as people planning to scam or harass individuals, or infect computers with malware (malicious software placed ona computer without the knowledge of the owner).
Social networks that provide their services without user fees make a profit by selling advertising. This is often done through behavioral advertising, also known as targeting. This is the practice of tailoring advertisements to an individual’s personal interests. This practice is appealing to marketers because targeted advertisements get better results. They are also valuable to social networks as they can be sold at a higher price than regular ads.
Some of the concerns regarding the largely unregulated behavioral advertising include: consumers may not be aware that data is associated with their profiles, consumers may not be able to view the data (and so inaccuracies are not corrected), there are no maximum retention periods on data and no security requirements for the retention of data, and information about minors may be collected and used.
Jobseekers have increasingly turned to social networks to market themselves to potential employers. However, an unprofessional social networking profile may turn off some potential employers. As a general rule, before posting something on a social networking profile, imagine it displayed on a billboard on the side of a highway. If you’re not comfortable with that, you may not want to post it at all. On the flip side, social networks can increase networking opportunities, which may be helpful with the job hunt.
Criminals may use social networks to connect with potential victims. Identity thieves use an individual’s personal information to pretend to be them – often for financial gain. The information users post about themselves on social networks may make it possible for an identity thief to gather enough information to steal an identity. In 2009, researchers published a study showing that it is possible to predict most and sometimes all of an individual’s 9-digit Social Security number using information gleaned from social networks and online databases.
There are some practical tips to help users minimize the privacy risks when using social networks. Keep in mind that these tips are not 100% effective – any time you choose to engage in social networking sites, you are taking certain risks.
Be cautious of pop-up windows and delete cookies, including flash cookies, every time you leave a social networking site. Don’t publicize vacation plans, especially the dates you’ll be traveling. In the event that your social networking account is compromised, be sure to report it to the site immediately and alert your contacts. Be sure to log off from social networking sites when you no longer need to be connected. Common sense, caution, and skepticism are some of the strongest tools you have to protect yourself.