Personal Privacy, Social Media and You

Written on April 27, 2012 – 9:58 am | by Brian Wallace |

Today’s prevailing attitude about the free exchange information across multiple platforms and applications, known to many as Web 2.0 design, is causing users to take a hard look at what constitutes personal privacy. There are many pieces of information people use to conduct daily business on the Internet that shouldn’t be publicly shared, such as credit card information or Social Security numbers. Many are also concerned with the unintended consequences of content shared on social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. As these concerns show no signs of disappearing, they have become a key topic of interest for paralegal schools seeking to properly educate their students on how to approach this grey area in privacy law interpretation and application. With social media usage becoming even more widespread, more accounts of privacy violations are sure to arise.

The social media platform Facebook is designed to collect information from users and earn a premium from marketers paying for targeted ads. A March 2012 story published by ABC News reported that Facebook earned $3.7 billion in total revenue during 2011, contributing to a total profit of $668 million. These gains, earned by capitalizing on content freely shared by Facebook users, has led to intense scrutiny over users concerned about vague privacy information. Changes to the Facebook data-use policy, formerly privacy policy, in late March 2012 prompted complaints from more than 30,000 users, mostly German-based.

Facebook, compared to every other social media outlet, is the largest storehouse of many types of personal information on the Internet. More than 750 million Facebook users access their profiles at least once per month. Many of these users willingly provide personal information, including email addresses, age, name, phone numbers and other pieces of biographical information. Facebook also tracks a person’s web usage while logged in, storing information on their Internet activities. Facebook doesn’t automatically share information with third parties, but third party information authorization occurs every time a user downloads a new app or integrates Facebook with another service.

Social media can also cause privacy concerns in the real world as well as the digital realm. Employers have found it possible to research prospective hires through their Facebook page, revealing intimate information. A National Post story from March 2012 reports on the employer practice of asking for Facebook login credentials from users. Facebook has responded by saying that the practice violates the user agreement and could cause “unanticipated legal liability.” Until a suit is filed, though, there’s nothing to keep employers from continuing this practice. Government officials also have the power to access social media records with a subpoena through the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Access to personal information is an issue for many social media outlets other than Facebook. Twitter copies the address books of its users and stores that information in a database for up to 18 months. The reorganization of online Google services under a single privacy policy increased user anxieties over information shared across these applications.

Much of the work of protecting your privacy begins with your own actions, according to PCWorld’s Tom Bradley. “As a general rule, refrain from posting things online that you will regret later,” Bradley writes. “Odds are good that someone, someday, will stumble across it, and it may come back to haunt you.” Defining exactly what information you want to keep private and refusing to post that information online is the only way to ensure that your privacy will remain intact while using social media.

Drew Hendricks is a social media and SEO enthusiast that spends his free time browsing the internet and playing frisbee golf.

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