Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Social Networking, the Hyperreal and Informed Consent by Lauren Howard

In just a few years, social networking sites like Facebook have become among the most popular and influential online destinations. Facebook logs over 40 million page views per month, and is the fifth most visited website in America. While the privacy practices of these sites have drawn criticism, many observers have also been puzzled by the apparently unlimited willingness of users to publicize private information over the internet.

I. Social Networking & The Hyperreal

Social networking sites permit users to recreate (or indeed enhance) their social lives online. By crafting an online persona and building a network of connections with others, members develop a complex, though simulated, online social community. This simulation is an example of "the hyperreal" a concept of philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard posited that postmodern culture would increasingly and inevitably turn to simulations of reality, rather than the authentic physical world, for our engagement with society. Baudrillard’s classic example of the hyperreal experience is Las Vegas, where tourists visit ersatz Paris and float through Venice’s canals, and then ride the escalator to the slot machines.

Social networks materialize this concept, offering access to a simulated community that reflects users’ “real world” social experience. Facebook offers a particularly compelling simulation, in that it clusters users into university, employer and geographical networks, which is similar to how most individuals categorize their real social networks (i.e. college friends, work friends etc.) creating a sense of familiarity. Another compelling aspect of Facebook is the total freedom users have to create their online persona. On Facebook, someone who secretly prefers to read UsWeekly? can nevertheless list Swann’s Way as their favorite book – they can project their ideal selves to the world, rather than the reality.

These seductive aspects of online networking have drawn a rapidly growing and involved audience. Social interactions have increasingly depended on online tools (indeed my 5-year college reunion is being organized almost exclusively via Facebook). In order to engage fully in one's social environment, it will soon be necessary to build a profile and post personal information online.

II. The Facebook Community

Facebook's launch demonstrates how they have cultivated a comfortable user community. By initially including only colleges, Facebook generated an online community of users who already had real-world ties. For these early users, Facebook felt like a safe and friendly a walk across campus. Facebook has grown by including more features that encourage users to log-on frequently, such as the mini-feed which offers real-time updates of friends’ profile changes, or third party applications that offer games and photo-sharing.

a. Facebook's Privacy Defaults

Facebook boasts an accessible and clear privacy policy. However, the simplicity of the privacy policy does not mean that it is simple to maintain privacy on Facebook. According to a Carnegie Mellon study, four out of five Facebook users accept the default setting, which allows the entirety of one’s network to view the information on one’s profile. For the UCLA network, that would mean an audience of 50,400 people, and for the Boston network, over 300,000 people. Furthermore, one third of student users don’t realize that it is easy for non-students to access their profile, and 30% don’t realize they even have the option to limit the accessibility of their Facebook profile.

b. Third Party Applications

Another major weakness in Facebook’s privacy infrastructure is third-party applications. Facebook currently offers nearly 20,000 third-party applications, ranging from useful tools like link-sharing, to applications like “Quiz: Would you survive a Zombie Outbreak?” When attempting to add such an application, users must agree to a series of terms, including “I allow this application to know who I am and access my information” and “I allow this application to publish stories in my news feed and mini-feed.”

These terms are inadequately informative. First, though the applications are identified as third party applications, they are accessed through Facebook, tailored to the Facebook interface, and look like a part of Facebook, giving users the impression that they are a part of Facebook and offer the same privacy protections. Meanwhile, Facebook explicitly disclaims any responsibility for enforcing their privacy policy as it applies to third party applications. In addition, these terms merely require a user to allow the application to “access their information.” It is unclear exactly what information is accessed, and indeed the applications are accessing significantly more information than necessary. A recent study by an engineering student at the University Virginia found that 8.7% of these third party applications required absolutely no personal information in order to run properly, and 82% required only public information (such as name and network) to run properly. Yet all of these applications have access to the entirety of a user’s information on Facebook, both public and private.

III. Informed Consent

In their rush to participate in the burgeoning online social community, many users of social networking websites remain uninformed as to the access third parties will have to the personal information they post. As full engagement with one’s social environment increasingly requires participation with social networking websites, it is necessary that users be fully informed of the privacy risks these sites pose. As in any contractual relationship, Facebook owes its users adequate information to make an informed choice.

In order to obtain informed consent from their users, Facebook must clearly delineate the audience that can access a user’s information. Before a user posts a photo or personal details, Facebook should indicate the number of people that will be able to view that item. It is also imperative that Facebook place more limits on the ability of third party applications to access private information.

IV. Conclusion

Social networks offer an exciting new way to develop social communities, and will only increase in popularity and significance, eventually making it extremely difficult for those concerned with personal privacy to opt out. It is imperative that users demand better privacy protection and more detailed information about privacy risks, so that we can all engage in online discourse without compromising our rights.

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r14 - 30 Apr 2017 - 22:11:13 - EbenMoglen
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