I want privacy, but I give you my data

(CC) g4ll4is

(CC) g4ll4is

If I say something, I want it heard only by those for whom I intend it. If the content of my speech is available to the world, I have no privacy.

– Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”[1].

Ten years have been passing since the formulation of “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”, ten years in which social network sites had gradually become a fundamental and inalienable component of our everyday lives. Now, considering that the architecture of this kind of social platforms lies on users’ performative display of information [2], it comes almost inevitable to wonder whether the concept of privacy has changed with the advent of social media.

Is it privacy dead?

Looking at the statistics about the number and the type of information shared through social network site makes the reader asking her-/himself if it’s not outdated to talk about privacy. Demographic studies about young adults have shown that roughly 90% of them disclosed their full name, date of birth, and hometown on their Facebook profile [3; 4; 5]. Have people stopped caring about privacy? Actually not. Indeed, the majority of survey respondents reported to be aware of privacy issues and to make use of Facebook privacy settings [5].

The privacy paradox

(CC) Poster Boy NYC

(CC) Poster Boy NYC

Ok, so people DO care about privacy and they DO know how to handle privacy settings on social network sites. Problem solved then, right? Unfortunately not. As an Italian proverb points out, there is an ocean between what is said and what is done and the privacy issue makes no exception to it. People claim to be concerned about privacy, to be familiar with the privacy settings panel, but they still expose themselves to a concrete risk of privacy invasion. How’s that possible? Well, that’s where the privacy paradox lies: users want to keep information private, but don’t realize that social network sites are public spaces [6]. Indeed, even though users seems to be to a certain extent aware of the public dimension, they still misleadingly believe to have control of their privacy through the privacy settings [5].

The privacy paradox in action

For better explaining the privacy paradox concept, let’s have look to a concrete example: friends-only visibility. Let’s take an imaginary user, which we are going to call “Bill”. Bill shares personal information on his profile at Facebook (or a similar site), and sets the visibility of his profile to “friends only”. Friends are supposed to be trustworthy, ergo Bill’s personal information (and privacy) are safe. The mechanism doesn’t seem to present any flaw – at least in theory. In practice, however, it doesn’t take into account the fact the “friends” category on social network sites includes intimate friends, casual acquaintances, and sometimes even complete strangers [5]. In other words, even though users hide themselves behind the idea of being protected by the “friends only” setting, their information are still available to several unintended recipients.

So, to get back to the initial question: has privacy changed with the advent of social media? The answer is yes and no. On one hand, people still care and still want to have privacy. On the other hand, the whole context around it has radically changed and often creates the illusion of a privacy protected environment. However, reality is quite far from that assumption. As David Rosenblum wrote, “if we were to draw a real-world analogy to posting on MySpace, it would be more analogous to taking a megaphone into Madison Square Garden each time I typed in a message” [7]. So, next time you are going to post something on a social media ask yourself: who’s actually on the other side of your megaphone?

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  1. Hughes, E. (1993). A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto. http://www.activism.net/cypherpunk/manifesto.html
  2. Ibrahim, Y. (2008). The new risk communities: Social networking sites and risk. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 4(2), 245-253.
  3. Dwyer, C., Hiltz, S. R., & Passerini, K. (2007). Trust and Privacy Concern Within Social Networking Sites: A Comparison of Facebook and MySpace. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, Keystone, Colorado August 09 – 12 2007
  4. Ho, A., Maiga, A., & Aïmeur, E. (2009, May). Privacy protection issues in social networking sites. In Computer Systems and Applications, 2009. AICCSA 2009. IEEE/ACS International Conference on (pp. 271-278). IEEE
  5. Debatin, B., Lovejoy, J. P., Horn, A. K., & Hughes, B. N. (2009). Facebook and online privacy: Attitudes, behaviors, and unintended consequences. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 15(1), 83-108.
  6. Barnes, S. B. (2006). A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States. First Monday, 11(9).
  7. Rosenblum, D. (2007). What anyone can know: The privacy risks of social networking sites. Security & Privacy, IEEE, 5(3), 40-49.

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