Are social networks really killing privacy?

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It was recently reported that Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had his private Facebook account hacked. The hackers were able to download a number of private photographs from Zuckerberg’s account and share them throughout the Web. They claimed that they were attempting to highlight the flaws in Facebook’s new privacy settings which were installed in late November. Interestingly, Facebook has refused to comment on the matter, but has subsequently repaired the “hole” which allowed the hackers entry to Zuckerberg’s private account.

This ironic turn of events has opened up debates surrounding Facebook’s flawed privacy system again, and it is doubtful whether this shortcoming will ever be resolved. Zuckerberg himself appears to bear testament to this idea. In the biographic novel, The Facebook Effect, which tracks the history of the company, he is quoted as saying that privacy is dead, and if he had the option to go back, would have never introduced privacy settings in the first place. He believes, as with so many utopian-minded internet pioneers, that the web should be a place of openness.

Practising “privacy in public”
Britain’s Samuel Crisp, an Apple employee, would most likely argue differently. Even though his profile was set to private, a “friend” passed on disparaging remarks he made regarding the company to Apple bosses, and as a result, was dismissed. In other countries, similar lawsuits have favoured employees, who usually cite that their privacy has been invaded by the company. It could be argued that this is a valid argument, but it is doubtful that it will remain so in the future, as has been witnessed by Crisp’s dismissal.

Internet expert, Clay Shirky has argued in his recent book, Here Comes Everbody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, that this type of interaction should be considered as “privacy in public”. He explains that status updates, wall posts, photographs and other published material can be likened to a private conversation that occurs in a public place which is open to eavesdropping just like a conversation would be in a mall or restaurant — and the louder that one complains, the more likely it is that others will overhear and pass on the contents of a private conversation.

Privacy is not the issue
Possibly, one of the better ways to resolve the multitude of arguments surrounding the protection of online privacy is to dismiss the notion of invasion entirely. Instead, it may be more useful to consider the work of philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, who explains that we have not lost privacy, but rather we have lost the integrity of social context. Personal relationships have always been divided, often subconsciously, into varying levels of disclosure. Going as far back as Aristotle, philosophers have continuously argued that every relationship which binds individuals is constructed in varying and complex ways. Each of these is determined by our social context and level of disclosure, but social networks have in some ways dissolved many of these contextual boundaries.

For example, before social networks came into play, one would re-tell the events of a weekend away differently to their friends, parents, teachers and employers. With the introduction of sites like Facebook, however, each group is privy to many more details than would have been disclosed in the past. To be fair, the site has recently employed filters which allows one to distinguish between close friends, family, colleagues and the like, but it is rather cumbersome and time-consuming to implement, and still far from a perfect solution.

Where to from here?
Perhaps a better answer to the conundrum that faces users with regard to online privacy would be to consider Nissenbaum’s argument once again. She believes that in order to maintain our contextual integrity we need to treat online behaviour as we would treat offline interaction. In other words, we should aim to create an environment which maintains the norms of regular social interaction. Because the norm of the social network environment is one which encourages users to share opinion, personal photographs and other information, we should maintain this; but simultaneously, we should also acknowledge that it is the norm to share this information with other participants, and so should consider carefully what is placed online.

Much of one’s private life is now distributed via public social networks, but it does not mean privacy is dead. Yes, hackers can access your profile, and “friends” can share your private information with others, but at the same time it’s up to the individual to determine if what they are broadcasting would be an acceptable norm offline. Privacy is a convoluted issue and most often relative to the individual. Instead of concentrating on social networks and privacy, therefore, it may be more useful to consider the shifting nature of our social contexts, and how one should go about managing it as social networking evolves.

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