Facebook: the end of privacy?



Photo: Sean Campbell

SAMANTHA GORDINE and  SUSANN LANDEFELD investigate the Facebook phenomenon

With 500 million users, Mark Zuckerberg has created the largest social network in the world. In St Andrews, most students seem to have or have had a Facebook account. Once planned to alleviate the social interaction within the Harvard student body, Facebook is no longer only used by the younger generation as an interface, but also by people of all ages to connect with old school friends, graduates or friends and family abroad.

It is interesting that the term ‘social network’ is used to describe this type of platform. The term ‘social’ means looking for and enjoying the companionship of other people and the word ‘network’ implies ‘an association of individuals having a common interest, formed to provide mutual assistance’. Does the combination of words both suggesting face-to-face interaction, lead us to the meaning of a website which allows us to peer and pry into the lives of others? Is there not a perverse twisting in this phrase?

Nevertheless, no doubt that Facebook has become a determining feature in most users’ social life. Reminders on wall posts, tagging of pictures, pokes, event invitations, ‘like’ buttons – it has all become incorporated into our daily schedule and the average Facebook user might have wondered what they once did before that age of virtual interaction.

Reversely, it seems as though many users have at least once thought of shutting down their accounts to escape from this social network. The use of Facebook has created another obligation in our daily life, added on top of the existing duties of checking, reading, answering e-mails and working. It creates another pressure source to our pile, as not checking your account could result in socially missing out on something. Even half an hour of sitting in front of the glimmering screen pressing buttons on the keyboard is this tribute to the success of Facebook. Can we escape it?

The answer is: Yes, some people can. David Bunce is one of those who escaped. At the end of this summer, he did what many people try themselves, but do not pull through. David deleted his Facebook account after having it deactivated for a month. When closing down his account, he sent out an e-mail explaining the reasoning behind his action, offering other ways of communication and also referring to new prospects in life without Facebook. “With Facebook out of my life, I hope to do more, be more productive and have more time for genuine relaxation,” he wrote, “Finally, there is something a wee bit more romantic and reminiscent of a better age to have communication that is personalised.” Several months have passed and he has still not reopened an account, as most people had expected. 

One of the main reasons for closing the account was constant altering in the terms and regulations, making data privacy questionable whilst becoming a single identification and authentication service for the web. Most people are unaware of the Facebook privacy policy and their rights because they do not read the terms and regulations when initially opening your account. It is actually possible to outvote a change by getting 7,000 user comments and a vote of 30% of all Facebook users. Since the first launch of Facebook in 2004, there have been a lot of alterations leading to the question on how well-protected you still are. Do you not rather feel face-hooked than face-booked?

The first thing you notice when working your way through the terms is, that you grant Facebook a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any of your posted content, unless the data is protected by your privacy settings. Shared content will endure even after deletion of your profile. 

When creating a profile, you confirm, among other things that you are over the age of 13. Also, you verify that you are neither a convicted sex offender nor providing false information about yourself including your proper name. In another paragraph you agree to omit any actions of libel. 

However, who checks that every Facebook user really abides to these terms? Facebook gives the following answer: ‘If we fail to enforce any of this Statement, it will not be considered a waiver.’ Furthermore, Facebook states in capital letters that they ‘do not guarantee that Facebook will be safe and secure’. Basically, this amounts to transferring provider duties to each individual Facebook user.

Recently, Facebook was criticised for selling information about users to advertising companies. While the company denies the sale of private user data, it has acknowledged that certain Facebook applications have indeed done so. Rather than discussing adequate measures of protection, however, the interpretation of the term “private data” should probably be identified first.

In the light of the popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, the EU Commission announced an overhaul of the existing rules on personal data protection last month. A current lack of universally recognized regulations on the protection of personal data has encouraged such action. Unified changes on an EU level are designed to “make Europe stronger in promoting high data protection standards globally.”

After all, what seems to be a private conversation, remark or joke shared between friends on Facebook, can have serious implications on current jobs, friendships and relationships as well as future educational and employment opportunities. 

A US study in 2009 conducted by Harris Interactive has revealed that 45 percent of employers take their applicants’ profiles on social networking sites, mainly Facebook, into consideration. Moreover, 35 percent of employers decided not to hire a candidate on the grounds of foremost provocative pictures, drinking and drug use publicised online. Impeccable CVs, references and cover letters are apparently no longer the sole decisive factors in an application – polishing your Facebook profile may be just as vital for success. Even in an era of virtual social networking, blogging and v-logging, some things should remain not for general consumption.

Last year, President Obama warned high school students of the consequences of careless behaviour online: “Be careful about what you post on Facebook because, in the YouTube age, whatever you do will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life.”

In the UK, a juror was dismissed from trial after discussing a court case with family and friends on Facebook holding a poll on how to decide. The first “Facebook divorce” occurred in early 2009, when a British woman was informed about her husband leaving her through his updated Facebook status publicly announcing that he had “ended his marriage”. Possibly a case of failed communication – ironically, he was an IT consultant. In the US, a high school teacher lost her job after calling her students “germ bags” and describing the parents as “arrogant” and “snobby” on her Facebook wall. She had not been aware of her posts being visible to everyone, parents and students alike.

These are just a few examples of an ever increasing lineup of Facebook faux pas. The most recent case demonstrating the consequences of a reckless idea happened in Germany last month. Several hundred thousand Facebook users who had changed their profile pictures to images of cartoon heroes from their childhood were stung by the revelation that they violated copyright laws.

Although these cases on their own seem trivial, nonetheless they have demonstrated that it is not only private pictures, posts and profile information that may have unexpected effects, but also online events, movements and ideas we chose to support. The number of Facebook users equals the total population of the EU – there is no foolproof way to control who is watching. It may be wise to reconsider using an online social network as a billboard to broadcast every excruciating details of your life.


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