Is the Age of privacy over? Facebook, Privacy and Qualitative Research
Lisa Blenkinsop University of GuelphERHD*6000 Qualitative Analysis
The age of privacy is over. Mark Zuckerberg, January 2010Since the inception of social media there has been a cultural shift towards sharing personal information online. A participatory culture has been created in which individualsallow worldwide access into their personal lives through blogs, chat rooms, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Zuckerberg claims that expectations of privacy are no longer a social norm.
There are over 1,000,000,000 Facebook users worldwide. Age distribution of Gender Distribution ofCanadian Facebook users (2012) Country distribution of Facebook users 2012/13 Canadian Facebook Users (2012) These users are a source of large amounts of qualitative data that is relatively inexpensive to collect. http://www.socialbakers.com/facebook-statistics/
There is “blurred distinction” between private and public lives and spaces on the Internet (Snee, 2008).This blurring raises questions around the privacy of Facebook users in a researchcontext:Do online social networking site users know that they can potentially beused as research subjects?Does putting information online imply consent?Is data that is easily obtained online considered public?Is observing individuals on a social networking site for research purposescomparable to observing individuals in a public space for research purposes?How is it possible to maintain confidentiality with data that easily Googled?
Facebook has heavily influenced the blurring of privacy lines in the 21st century. Facebook’s privacy settings are constantly changing, making it difficult for users to stay informed and alter their settings accordingly. Many Facebook privacy settings are public by default thereby allowing anyone to view photos, posts, likes, friends of individual users, unless the user changes their settings. Ironically, Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Mark and former Facebook marketing director, accidentally publicly posted a Zuckerberg family photo that went viral: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eX6MGMQEOEA Facebook has been investigated by Canada’s Privacy Commission, the EU, the US Federal Trade Commission and numerous privacy watchdogs. 8 Facebook Privacy Flaps: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/09/25/f-facebook-privacy- list.html
Ethical clearance must be obtained for any research involving human participants. The online environment is changing so rapidly that it is difficult for research ethics boards and policies to evolve quickly enough to reflect these changes. Online privacy is still a grey area. Many Canadian universities do not have a clearly outlined online research ethics policy. Some researchers maintain that online research ethics is context-driven, others believe that personal information that is online and public is fair game for researchers (Snee, 2008). The University of Guelph considers any Facebook information that can be accessed without “friending” someone to be public; privacy is dependent on the privacy setting of the individual. Research on social networking sites is considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for research involving Humans (TCPS 2) states;To qualify for an exemption from REB review, it must be demonstrated that theinformation required for the project is: legally accessible and protected by law; or publicly accessible and free of reasonable expectations of privacy.However, the TCPS 2 also states:Be aware that there are situations where information is publicly accessible but thepeople involved nevertheless have some expectation of privacy. In these cases, REBreview is required.
The question isnt, What do we want to know about people?, Its, What dopeople want to tell about themselves?’Mark Zuckerberg
Example of informed consent to use private Facebook profile data: http://onlinesociability.org/informed-consent-form/In the case of quotes about things you or your friends have done online (such as can be seen inposts on your wall, or your tweets), these disguises could be vulnerable. Using a searchengine, a motivated person could break it. A person could take a quotation from the researchand use a search engine to find the actual page online.Does not guarantee confidentiality for the research subject OR their Facebook friends as thetraceability of online data makes it difficult to insure.While a participant may agree to share their Facebook profile information, their Facebookfriends have not agreed to share their private Facebook information for research.Does not acknowledge the social harm that may occur from releasing user Facebook data.By asking for informed consent, the researchers acknowledge the privacy of Facebook usercontent and inform the participant of confidentiality issues.They also gain access to private content.In the context of ever-changing Facebook privacy settings, is it ethical to use Facebook datawithout informed consent?
A picture is worth a thousand words: A content analysis Cultural Influences on Facebook photographs of Facebook profile photographs (Hum et al, 2011) (Huang and Park, 2012)Explored what college Facebook users posted in their Examined cultural influences and differences in Facebookprofile pictures and how this content differs by gender. profile photos between Taiwanese and American undergraduate students.Created table of researchers’ active Facebook friends who Used Facebook search engine to randomly select studentwere in college and selected participants at random from profiles from 2 Taiwanese universities and 2 Americanthis table. universities.Uses personal contact information obtained from Facebook No mention of obtaining informed consent, Institutionalfriend profiles to obtain informed consent from Review Board (IRB), or Facebook policies.participants.Mentions International Review Board policy, and Facebookpolicies.Study treats Facebook profile pictures as private; Study treats Facebook profile pictures as public; presumespresumes Facebook users have an expectation of privacy. that Facebook users do not have an expectation of privacy. According to Facebook’s Data Use Policy http://www.facebook.com/full_data_use_policy Facebook profile and cover photos are always public.
Article reviews a Harvard-based research study, “Tastes, Ties and Time” (T3) that examinedsocial network dynamics of undergraduate students: With the consent of an anonymous American university and Facebook, researchers downloaded Facebook profile data for an entire undergraduate cohort, 1640 students, beginning in their first year, to be continued twice yearly for the remaining 3 years of their degree. The research project was reviewed and approved by Harvard’s Committee on the Use of Human Subjects. Informed consent was not obtained from the students, and no students were contacted for further information or data collection. Only information that was available “by default” on Facebook network was included in the study; gender, ethnicity, home state, nation of origin, political views, sexual interests, college major, relational data and cultural interests. The university provided additional data on the students, including housing information, which the researchers then linked to the students’ Facebook profile information. All identifying information was deleted or encoded immediately; data was coded for race, ethnicity, political views, etc. Due to funding stipulations, the entire dataset was to be released in phases for public use and further research studies.
After the release of the first set of data: The “anonymous” university, Harvard College, as well as some of the individuals in the study, were easily identified because of the uniqueness of the data included, such as student majors and ethnicity. The dataset was removed from public access, Harvard was accused of breaching students’ privacy.Zimmer (2010) concludes:Merely having one’s personal information stripped from the intended sphere of the socialnetworking profile, and amassed into a database for external review becomes an affront tothe subjects’ human dignity and their ability to control the flow of their personalinformation.By failing to recognize that users might maintain strong expectations that informationshared on Facebook is meant to stay on Facebook…the T3 researchers have failed in theirduty to engage in ethically-based research.
Researchers from Tastes, Ties and Time (Lewis et al., 2008) conclude:Open, evolving SNSs represent remarkable new research opportunities. These sitesprovide users with templates that, while intended for recreational purposes andorganized presentation, are ideally suited for data collection and analysis. While Facebook opens up research opportunities in many disciplines, it also opens up questions about how this data could and should be used. Recognition that Facebook profiles represent human participants is imperative. Facebook users expectations of privacy are paramount. As a researcher, you must consider the privacy implications of Facebook research, and provide realistic expectations of confidentiality to participants. Work with your research ethics board on privacy and confidentiality. Research ethnics boards have both a challenge and an opportunity to create flexible online research ethics policies.
If you are a Facebook user, do you consider the information you post to be public or private? Would you want your Facebook information to be used for research without your knowledge? Would you give your consent to have your private Facebook data used for research? Why or why not? If you were going to engage in research using Facebook profiles, would you be comfortable insuring confidentiality? Would you use Facebook user profile data without consent, if the information was publicly shared? Thank you for sharing!
Huang, C-M., and Park D. (2012). Cultural Influences on Facebook photographs.International Journal of Psychology. DOI:1-10.Hum, N.J., Chamberlin, P.E., Hambright, B.L., Portwood, A.C., Schat, A.C., andBevan, J.L. (2011). A picture is work a thousand words: A content analysis ofFacebook profile pictures. Computers in Human Behavior. 27(2011):1828-1833.Lewis, K., Kaufman, J., Gonzalez, M., Wimmer, A., & Christakis, N. (2008).Tastes, Ties, and time: A new social network dataset using Facebook.com. SocialNetworks, 30(4), 330–342.Snee, H. (2008). Web 2.0 as a Social Science Research Tool. ESRC GovernmentPlacement Scheme, The British Library. 1-34.Zimmer, M. (2010). “But the data is already public”: on the ethics of research inFacebook. Ethics and Information Technology. 12:313-325.