With the recent news of both near and far government efforts to sift through personal Internet activity and other information, and the often-shifting rules of engagement by social media platforms, the idea that online privacy is fleeting may not be too far-fetched. There has been a quiet but continual trade-off going on for years — a trade-off granting quick, easy access to oodles of free information and services that enhance our lives, in return for information about us.

The unrecognized aspects of privacy on social media

When it comes to privacy and social media, stories abound of how people were fired for things they posted online, job seekers lost job opportunities, health care benefits were forfeited, relationships were compromised, and identities stolen, most often because of what people posted on their personal social media accounts. Then there are the stories of dissidents being found and punished for their views, and other people who have died under circumstances linked to social media. As lawyers, legislatures, business interests, and privacy advocates square off to argue in favor of each of their interests, at least one expert claims they are also creating and nurturing myths about online privacy.

In Lothar Determann‘s paper “Social Media Privacy: A Dozen Myths and Facts” (PDF), published by the Stanford Technology Law Review, the author writes that data privacy and privacy rights in general are “grossly exaggerated,” and that in the social media context those largely unrecognized rights often run counter to rights such as free speech, which are “explicitly acknowledged in constitutions and human rights treaties.” He further explains that it is seldom the social media platforms that invade privacy, but rather the people using those platforms to publish information about themselves, their acquaintances, friends, and families. That sentiment is echoed by Kathleen Parker writing in The Herald-Sun, where she puts the blame for any privacy loss squarely on us, the users of the Internet, because of the drive for fame and celebrity that compels us to tell “every little thing” to the world.

Privacy and the Internet in general

There are two sides to the privacy issue, because governments and companies that take the information and use it for purposes other than it was originally intended become participants in privacy erosion as well. Dan Gillmor in his post on The Guardian suggests that fear has played a large part in the loss of privacy — fear of terrorism and a host of other fears fed to the masses mainly to keep them entertained.

Sometimes the Internet’s speed and pervasiveness inspires creative use of information that has been traditionally locked up in more cumbersome forms. The names of reporters with their addresses and phone numbers circulated online is one high profile tit-for-tat example of what many consider to be inappropriate dissemination of private information that’s otherwise publicly available.

Business, too, is finding many ways to gather and creatively use information available online. In one case, outcry about the amount of homeowner information available on Zillow caused that company to adjust the content it was providing. In most cases, similar to the one that affected Zillow, the information is freely available, but for many people it’s now the ease of which it is available online that rankles them.

Personal information leaks persist

There is also a form of privacy erosion that is largely imperceptible. It is the kind referred to as “leakage” of personally identifiable information via social media network interactions on the Internet. Reported in 2009 in the paper, “On the Leakage of Personally Identifiable Information Via Online Social Networks (PDF),” this occurs when first-party servers leak personally identifiable information to third-party servers as those third-party servers track cookies and serve up content and ads. The results, according to the authors, are that not only could third parties know the surfing habits of a particular user, but they could also link that browsing behavior to a specific person.

In a 2011 update to that research, it was reported that 75% of 100 popular websites were leaking personally identifiable information to third-party tracking sites and that efforts already made and those being planned at that time, would not be effective in stopping the leakage. The authors maintained that the only effective solution would be to hold the owners of first party sites accountable for user privacy. A study reported this year found that leakages continue, as the authors commented:

“We observed that within just a single browsing session among some social network sites as well as non-social networking sites, identifiable and non-identifiable information was leaked or shared to various third party sites and propagated to more than just one level of third party sites. In addition, we also discovered that sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus are able to track browsing activities not only within their sites but beyond their boundaries, particularly among Web sites that embed widgets, such as Facebook’s Like button, Twitter’s Tweet button, and Google’s Plus One button.”

Putting faces to the trackers

Absolute privacy online or offline may largely be a fantasy, but it’s unlikely most people who use the Internet are going to give up doing so for privacy reasons. Each individual and business ultimately has to decide if the online privacy they are trading is worth what they are getting in return. The problem is, most people and businesses don’t really know what information they’re trading.

Browser-based privacy tools like DoNotTrackMe help to put faces on the trackers and claim to prevent tracking. There are exceptions, according to Abine, the makers of DoNotTrackMe, and that’s when there is tracking going on at the site you are visiting.

If you’d like to see other actions you can take, visit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. It publishes an extensive overview on social networks and privacy, and gives detailed advice on privacy practices.

Final thoughts

While the enterprise may find it problematic to control tracking of company information when it’s distributed across employees’ mobile devices, it could use browser-based privacy tools on devices it has direct control of, and make sure employees follow privacy advice when interacting on social media sites.

How much privacy do you expect to have online? Let us know in the discussion.

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