Social Media and Privacy Continuum
I have a task for you.
It’s pretty simple, shouldn’t take too much time, but it is incredibly important. I need you to go tell someone you trust the most confidential piece of information you know.
Go on. Don’t be shy. Just gush out your deepest darkest secret to a trustworthy family member or friend. No big deal.
Before you leave, let me ask you a question; how are you going to tell them? I don’t mean what words you are going to use, but tactically. What mode of communication would you pick?
In other words, if privacy is at the forefront, how would you communicate with someone? What is the most secure method?
I think most of us probably would come up with the same three. Face-to-face is easily the most secure and private, you can pick your location, you can control your environment, you can visually see the receiver, you have the most control.
Then, probably telephone. It is much like face-to-face without the visual aspect, you can control the environment, and you can identify the receiver by voice.
Next? Maybe letter. Mail is pretty secure if for no other reason than it is scarcely used nowadays. You can avoid a paper trail by burning the note, and there is legal protection should anyone other than the desired recipient open the envelope, and there is certainly a social more to back it up.
How about the least secure ways to talk to someone? I think we’d probably all agree any form of amplification would be completely open – radio, television, and broadcast media – using those methods would literally be giving away the sensitive information. Talking publicly is probably also a poor decision, the law says you have no expectation of privacy in public – if something is overheard, that’s your fault.
I like to consider this the continuum of privacy, on the left side we have the modes of communication that we all agree are unsecure and lack any privacy. On the right, the modes we deem secure and private. It might differ a little by person, but for the most part if you ask people for their choice for a private conversation, you’ll likely get the same results.
But where does social media fall on the continuum? Social media in many instances is becoming the go to source for communication.
I argue that we all have different expectations of privacy on social media. Some treat it as completely secure; others think it’s as wide open as the fields of the Great Plains.
Furthermore, we have different expectations of security and privacy within a social media site. On Facebook we all expect that a private message is between the recipient and the sender, but a comment on a post or a post on a wall is clearly out in the open.
A recent NetPop Research survey showed the distance of concern with privacy on social media. According to the survey, 42% of respondents deemed themselves “uneasy” about privacy on social media, or in other words very concerned. Another 38% said they were “ambivalent” or somewhere in the middle, and 20% said they were unconcerned.
It is without question that a consensus has yet to be reached on where social media falls on the privacy continuum. And there’s a recent trend that is highlighting this range of feeling; the Facebook password scandal.
Maybe calling it a “scandal” is a little over-the-top, but stories of employers forcing employees to hand over Facebook passwords have been receiving no shortage of media attention. The most recent being a teacher’s aide in Michigan who refused to give up her password after the school district caught wind that a suggestive photo had been posted on her Facebook wall.
The photo in question was of a friend, and the woman, Kimberly Hester, refused to give up access to her Facebook account. She was suspended without pay because the school claimed they “had to assume the worst.” The district assumed she had no privacy on social media, Kimberly assumed she did.
Can I say both? Well too bad, because I am.
Bear with me for a second as I briefly breakdown the evolution of Facebook privacy to explain this. I was lucky enough to be around before Facebook really hit it big. I was probably at the beginning of the early adopter phase, back when you joined a “network” based on your school and you had to be approved by someone already in that network.
There was a feeling of security within that network, because in essence there was a community of bouncers, making sure that anyone who entered the network was approved and legitimate. This sense of security lead to people hoarding friends. In the early days of Facebook it seemed that if you were in the network, you were friends with everyone. At least within my network of virtual friends, those that have 1,000 buddies hit that mark early on and have never vetted the list since.
But that sense of security was false. Profiles were open; anyone on Facebook could see your posts, photos, comments, whatever they wanted.
After opening up the network to anyone and the service to people other than students, profiles became more restricted. Today, everyone has their profile on lockdown. And once again, that false sense of security has been instilled. Sure, you may only have 300 friends, and your profile may be restricted to just that group of people, but you have no control over that group. As easily as a right click of the mouse, your “secure and private” photos can be shared with the rest of the world.
Technically speaking, you should expect privacy on Facebook. You screen your friends, you lockdown your profile, and you share what you want. Only those you select see it. But the reality is, the information you post is not viscous, it can swiftly and easily move. Someone can either hit share and suddenly spread it to their network, or copy and paste and post it somewhere else or save for later. All it takes is one sour apple out of that “trusted” group of friends and what you thought was private is suddenly anything but.
Alas, we have a disconnect about privacy. You think it’s safe, it should be safe, but it is not safe. Employers see this and think, “These people represent the company, and what they are doing is akin to broadcasting their poor decisions, we should make sure this isn’t happening.” You see this and think, “I’m sharing it on a closed network to friends, and it is no big deal.”
The truth is, on the continuum, Facebook and social media is probably somewhere in the middle. However, some employers view it as not private at all, and most employees view it as completely private.
But how about we mix things up a bit more, because the ultimate reality is; it depends on who you are. Your information might be valuable to you, but honestly, very few people really care. The photo of you drinking God-knows-what out of a red solo cup might feel incriminating, but who is really going to share that. And how many people are really going to care?
But if you are the star of the college football or basketball team, all of a sudden that picture spreads, like wildfire. University athletic departments are aware of this, and they’re becoming more prudent with regulating their athlete’s social media use. I can assure you that every athletic department has some code of conduct and discipline structure in place. But how far should that go? Should they be allowed to login to athlete’s twitter and Facebook accounts?
Where does an athlete place social media on their privacy continuum? I’d say, it should be pretty far to the left, they should have no expectation of privacy online. Unlike ordinary Joe Smith, their information is valuable to other people, namely their rivals in sports. I’ve read the literature student sections hand out at basketball and football games; it is stuffed with opposing player’s social media goodness.
Unfortunately not everyone understands. Ronald Young is a state senator from Maryland. In response to the “Facebook password scandals” he is actively attempting to pass legislation that would make it more difficult for universities to acquire athlete’s social media credentials. He claims, “It’s like reading their mail or listening to their phone calls.”
Young clearly has social media placed on the far right side of the privacy continuum. And to be perfectly honest, he’s insane to think that. We all agree phone calls and mail are private, we assume and expect privacy with those modes of communication, but more importantly, we have control of that communication.
We know exactly who we are talking to on a phone call, and it is usually one person. There are laws in place that restrict who can open mail, and we all agree it’s not okay to open a letter addressed to someone else.
But when we share something on social media, we likely share it with our entire network. That might be 50 people, it might be 1,000 people, but it only takes one person to copy and paste and spread it somewhere else. Furthermore, even if we privately send a message through Facebook, we have no way of verifying if that profile picture and name is actually the person on the other end. We have far less control.
It is true the Constitution provides us with some form of privacy that cannot be infringed upon. But social media is an entirely different animal; we all have different privacy expectations. We have not come close to settling on an agreed upon position for social media on the privacy continuum.
This is an evolving problem and an evolving solution. It will be years before a consensus is reached and even then I doubt most people will agree. This column is not meant to solve the problem, but to get you to think about how you value privacy online and where you place social media on your own continuum.
To answer that question think about the task I gave you. Tell someone your deepest darkest secret. What is your instinct for what method of communication you’ll use? Did anyone answer Facebook?