A Call to Action: Protecting the Right to Consumer Privacy Online
Brown 1Brenden BrownProfessor ClauserWRD 10418 November 2010 A Call to Action: Protecting the Right to Privacy Ever heard about the internet being a secure and private place where people can visit anysite freely, do what they want to do, without any worry about who is watching or recording theirevery step throughout their session? The internet is not a private place. By definition, it is apublic highway where people can visit websites and transfer information from their computer tothe site’s network. Ever heard of such terms like identity theft, viruses, phishing scams, malware,worms, or trojans? Wait, what are these terms and why should anyone care? These terms arecausing security issues that affect the world’s computers every day, whether or not most peopleare aware of the privacy issues in the internet today. It is worth considering how much risk isinvolved in surfing the internet when there are so many security threats that exist in the worldonline. One area of particular interest is social networking sites because advertising andmarketing companies target these sites for customer’s information and the recent news storiesabout data privacy that have been made public knowledge. In today’s digital economic world, social networking creates a world of opportunity toconnect with friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, etc. Social networkers can share pictures,email addresses, phone numbers, blogs, and allow others to view and publish information ontheir pages using Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare to name a few. As innocent as these aims seem,the information shared on these sites are collected and shared with third parties, raising a numberof concerns around privacy issues to literate users in the computing community. Since social
Brown 2networking consumers have a choice to utilize social networking services and publish personalor private information, it is the responsibility of the consumer and not the governing corporateorganizations to protect the right to privacy on the internet. Post-doctoral researchers Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov that study anonymity,privacy and security issues at Stanford University, point out that “The digital economy relies onthe collection of personal data about our searches, browsing history, social relationships, medicalhistory, and so forth is collected and shared with advertisers, researchers, and governmentalagencies. (1) The digital economy relies on this data to target their customer base and to buildprofiles that focus on marketing to certain individuals in certain categories. This reliance onpersonal data for the digital economy is a realization that every social networking site usersshould be aware of in order to protect their private information from being distributed in anunanticipated way. Companies in charge of running these sites have a vested interest in protecting theirconsumer’s data to avoid bad press and avoid deteriorating their customer base; however, theincreasing reliance on personal data is becoming an important factor in its growth and popularitydue to the financial means that social networking and advertising achieve for obtaining moneyfor running and maintaining their sites. This trend continues to occur and will increase, accordingto an article about Facebook’s revenue by insidefacebook.com, it states that Facebook mademost of its money around advertising (Eldon), which explains why the reliance on personal datais becoming an increasingly important factor in social networking popularity and growth. So, it’sno wonder why data privacy is a concern especially when “college students are increasinglysharing their lives online through social networking sites with little concern for who may beviewing their information” (Timm 1). When college students display photos of their weekend
Brown 3activities or connect with certain individuals, they open themselves up to sharing informationthat may not be warranted on their part. If the reliance on personal data in the digital economy ison these college students, it explains how social networking site’s growth and popularity hasgiven the ultimate choice for the consumer. Just recently, an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Facebook in PrivacyBreach” found during a Wall Street Journal investigation that “many of the most popularapplications, or ‘apps’ on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmittingidentifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, theirfriends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies.” The article explains: The information being transmitted is one of Facebook’s basic building blocks: the unique ‘Facebook ID’ number assigned to every user on the site. Since a Facebook user ID is a public part of any Facebook profile, anyone can use an ID number to look up a persons name, using a standard Web browser, even if that person has set all of his or her Facebook information to be private. For other users, the Facebook ID reveals information they have set to share with "everyone," including age, residence, occupation and photos (Fowler 1).How did this happen? Facebook does not own or develop the applications, but allows their usersto download the applications. This type of issue, categorized by a personally identifiable databreach, is considered one of the more controversial subjects about social networking today. Notone party is responsible for protecting the information of their customers, not even anygovernment agency since information protection laws are at a national level, not a global level.
Brown 4 To reiterate the problem and how wide the gap is about private information on theinternet and how public private information is, Charles Davis, an associate professor at MissouriSchool of Journalism who specializes in journalism and media, interviewed a panel of peoplefrom a wide range of media sources and schools internationally. Davis’ goal was to questionwhether the protection of personal data is a fundamental right and if the internet companiesshould continue to be able to pass on personal data to third parties. At the end of the interviewDavis states, “For better or worse, government, businesses, and even our friends and family havemore access to our personal data than ever before. It has led to some complex legal and politicalquestions forcing a serious discussion about privacy and access to information.” As Davis pointsout, personal information has been made public more than ever before and has led to hardquestions about legal and political situations that beg to a discussion about privacy and access toinformation. In order to further understand the issue of data privacy in regards to social networkingconsumers, post-doctoral researchers Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov studyinganonymity, privacy and security issues at Stanford University explain the issue of privacy andsecurity of personally identifiable information (PII) is questioned when society is supplying theirPII by exposing it online. They explain that it remains difficult to draw a line between what isconsidered protected and what is free domain. Defining PII is extremely difficult to do withdifferent standards and interpretations of laws and amendments within the United StatesConstitution concerning the right to free speech and invasion of privacy. They explain that it isthis lack of definition that creates holes in litigation surrounding personal information. However,some institutions have found a working definition of PII, defined by authors of the NationalInstitute of Standards and Technology as:
Brown 5 Any information about an individual maintained by an agency, including (1) any information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity . . . and (2) any other information that is linked or linkable to an individual . . . including but not limited to personal characteristics, including photographic image (McAllister, et. al ES-1)It is the social networking companies that have a vested interest in protecting their consumer’sdata to avoid bad press and avoid deteriorating their customer base, but at the same time, not oneparticular party responsible for protecting consumer’s data in the internet today because it is ashared responsibility. See the dilemma? The next question that arises, is it more about theconsumer taking safeguards to protect their own data or the corporations running these socialnetworking sites? Cautionary steps can be taken by each individual to help keep their owninformation private such as abstaining from using these sites or opt to only share certaininformation with certain individuals and keep private information offline. David Flint, an Australian legal academic known for his tenure as head of the AustralianBroadcasting Authority, wrote about this and questions who is responsible for the issue at hand, evenwhen these social networking companies cannot control what their users do outside of the socialnetworking world. Flint asks important questions that illustrates a gap between human nature andthe use of social networking site, Facebook: The question has been raised: ‘What are sites such as Facebook doing to protect our data and our privacy?’ Consider a politician who takes all steps including injunction to prevent newspapers printing pictures of his children in order to protect their privacy yet sends out thousands of Christmas cards showing those children – is that privacy or hypocrisy? Maybe social networking sites have no
Brown 7changed the way the public shares and connects in an enormous way. He claims that anyone whounderstands web practices with personal information, for instance, should not be shocked toknow that cookies follow consumer behavior and serve ads based on prior activity. However, hesays that it seems that many internet users are blithely unaware of this issue, or at best just naïve.He suggests it is a dangerous mentality for any web user on social networking sites or otherwiseto deflect accountability elsewhere and that it is ultimately up to the user to govern theinformation that you publish and to learn how to utilize privacy controls. The key point Taylor wants to make is about user’s choice and how they should not beposting material online that they think could pose a threat if used in a manner that you dontanticipate. For example, Facebook does not ask for social security numbers at any time, butTaylor would not provide it on his personal profile even if there were some functionalityassigned to it. Taylor claims that accountability does lie on Facebooks end as well and it goes togreat lengths to give users control over how their information is going to be used. Taylor’s comments support the claim about it being the consumer’s responsibility tochoose which information they share on their pages, and which information is kept private; it isnot the corporate owning organizations whose responsibility is to protect it. What is the lessonfor social networking site users going forward? Understand that there is certain informationvisible to everyone because it’s essential to helping others connect, and that it is imperative tokeep certain information blocked from certain individuals of the consumer’s choice. Thispractice will help protect the right to privacy on the internet.
Brown 8 Works CitedDavis, Charles. “GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Privacy in the age of online social networking.” Missourian. 12 November 2010. Web. 14 November 2010.Eldon, Eric. “Facebook Revenues Up to $700 Million in 2009, On Track Towards $1.1 Billion in 2010.” Inside Network, Inc. 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.Flint, David. "Law shaping technology: Technology shaping the law.” International Review of Law, Computers & Technology 23.1/2 (2009): 5-11. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 5 Oct. 2010.Fowler, Geoffrey A. and Emily Steel. "Facebook in Privacy Breach." The Wall Street Journal. 18 October 2010. Web. 27 October 2010.Narayanan, Arvind, and Shmatikov, Vitaly. "Privacy and Secuity Myths and Fallacies of "Personally Identifiable Information." Communications of the ACM 53.6 (2010): 24-26. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 5 Oct. 2010.National Institute of Standards and Technology. Guide to Protecting the Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Maryland: GPO, 2010.Taylor, Charlie, employee of Facebook, Inc. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 2010.Timm, Dianne M., and Carolyn J. Duven. "Privacy and social networking sites." New Directions for Student Services 124 (2008): 89-101. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 28 Oct. 2010.