Big Brother is watching you, well at least reading your Facebook posts

This post is the 13th in a series for a graduate course called Theory and Audience Analysis. For the course, I will be posting weekly questions and follow-up analysis about the various readings we are assigned. This post delves deeper into the topic of privacy in social media.

As an early Halloween present, we had a Skype session with Eva Galperin (@evacide) from Electronic Frontier Foundation about privacy and social media. Eva was also one of the authors of our weekly readings: Facebook users brace for site’s redesign

Eva’s mission: to scare the pants off us.

After establishing that the majority of our interactive media class used social network sites and Gmail but have never read the privacy policies of these sites, Eva proceeded to inform us that by using these sites we basically give up all consent and control to our information and content. In Facebook’s eyes we are not the consumer but rather the product, she said. They want us to give them information so they can sell it to advertisers. This is why Facebook doesn’t seem too concerned when it changes its policy settings and user interface for controlling those settings with every new update. Eva cited a study that found 100% of users’ perceptions of their privacy settings were wrong compared to how they were actually set.

When information is taken out of our individual control it opens the doors for people to get a hold of it, including big government, she said. When conducting an investigation governments will demand information about users from Gmail, Facebook and Twitter. Eva said it is up to the corporations to decide whether to hand it over, and while they frequently might require a warrant, Google revealed that it handed over information 95% of the times it was requested.

The situation enters even deeper ethical territory when you consider that sites like Facebook and Google are used in countries with authoritarian regimes that have very different ideas about free speech. What about when a dictatorial government comes asking for information? Or requiring censorship?

Other important talking points from the chat:

  • People often think about privacy online in relation to other users (i.e. I don’t want my boss/parents/ex to see this content). They don’t take into account that all the data put out there is just sitting there and has the potential to be made public (accidentally or otherwise).
  • There is a reason Facebook deliberately makes it difficult to delete items. Storage is cheap, delete calls are not. They slow down servers. So just because content disappears from a page, it doesn’t mean it is actually gone from the servers.
  • Decentralized social networks like Diaspora – are almost privacy centric to a fault. If all your friends are super privacy advocates, and they sign up for Diaspora, but you can’t find them on the network because of their super privacy settings, then it kind of defeats the purpose of the social network to begin with.
  • EFF stands for privacy superheroes, who believe it is important for us not be spied on. Since the 1990s they have worked to “make sure civil liberties come with you when you go online,” Eva said. They fight for things like providing e-mail with the same protection as postal mail, which cannot be subject to unreasonable search and seizure.
  • Remember the Patriot Act and how it was supposed to protect the country from terrorism, turns out the majority of requests made under the Act are as a result of drug investigations. And there’s not even any evidence that these requests are resulting in captureds drug dealers.

So what can we do about this? Well Eva says the first step is education. People need to be aware of what’s happening their privacy and see who controls the content when it goes online. Next comes lobbying the companies to create user interfaces that make sense and are provide clear explanation of privacy settings. It’s about fighting for the protection of our rights – a founding principle of this great country we call home! So get educated and pay attention to what’s happening with your information, but most importantly be careful about what you put out online. When it comes to the Internet, it seems nothing is truly private, so protect yourself by filtering before publishing. Would you want that photo or text to be seen by your boss or parents? What about in 5 years from now when you are at a new company, would you want something you said previously to come back and haunt you?

Think Twice Before You Tweet by Jay Rogers


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