Definition Essay Revised — Cassie Hoffman

Invasion of Privacy?

In a highly social society, we tend to separate ourselves into multiple personalities. We have a professional side, which we share in the workplace and with acquaintances; we have an informal side, which we share with friends and family; and we also have a personal side, which we share with only ourselves. All of these separate aspects of our personalities make up who we are as individuals. But when these different personalities are shared with an unintended audience, it can sometimes lead to trouble. And with the emergence of higher technology and social networking, it has become a lot easier for others to view a glimpse of parts of our lives that we may not want them to see. Businesses use social networking sites to prescreen candidates for employment at their companies, schools use these sites to intervene with student conflicts, and law enforcement officials use them to dig up information on certain cases or to find a basis for targeting a group of people in an investigation. The use of social media profiles for purposes such as these may seem to be an invasion of privacy, but that accusation is entirely dependent upon what one defines to be an “invasion of privacy.”

Generally, an invasion of privacy is considered to be the act of prying into someone’s private life without their permission or consent; but if someone signs up for a social networking account and provides all their information on a public website, regardless of their “privacy settings,” can it truly be considered an invasion of privacy for an unintended audience to access that information? According to a 2010 article in Computers and Composition, Gina Maranto and Matt Barton report that, “both Facebook and MySpace (and their parent companies) are far more concerned with profits than privacy. Neither site claims to keep user information confidential; indeed, their profits come from exchanging this data with companies who are exploiting these sites” (Maranto and Barton). This means that essentially, no matter what kind of privacy settings or blocks that someone may place on a social networking account, the expected level of privacy is never truly enforced. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook or MySpace sell out all of their users’ personal information to anyone who wants it; what they do, however, is allow outside advertising agencies to access their users’ basic information and interests in order for these companies to provide targeted advertising to as many people as they can.

With the introduction of the Beacon advertising program on the Facebook website in 2007, Facebook essentially has “empower[ed] advertisers to target … ads using the information on the personal profiles that members supply to Facebook. A national advertiser could sell ads to a huge group (all women between 25 and 40), or a local advertiser, like a restaurant, could pay much less to reach a microgroup (Ivy League-educated Indian-food lovers in a specific ZIP code). You could even target people who work for a specific company,” according to Stan Levy in his Newsweek article “Do Real Friends Share Ads?”. The use of these advertising schemes are inversely related to the loss of privacy privileges on the internet; the less privacy we have, the more money advertisers accumulate. However, Facebook’s privacy officer at the time, Chris Kelly, assured users of the site that personal data is never given to the advertising agencies (Levy). As long as personal information is not exposed by Facebook, an advertising agency’s access to a person’s interests or recent web searches doesn’t really affect their lives in any other way other than the fact that agencies are able to deliver more targeted advertising to Facebook users.

Many people don’t even feel as though this access to their interests and activity on the internet is really that detrimental; by entering this information into a public website such as Facebook, users immediately give up their threshold for an expected level of privacy. Acohido Byron reported in his USA Today article“Frequent users less wary of Facebook” that “only 26% of respondents who use Facebook at least daily said they were ‘very concerned’ about privacy, compared with 35% who use the social network at least once a week, and 39% who use Facebook less often” (Byron). Forty-six year old Facebook user Danny Jackson of Maine told Byron, “I really don’t care if people know about the stuff I like” (Byron). USA Today partnered with Gallup Poll to survey a group of 2,000 adults, in which they concluded that the more that users actually use Facebook, the less likely they are to be concerned with their privacy. Yet even still, “technologists worry about Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others racing to develop businesses based on amassing vast amounts of data about what people do on their PCs and mobile devices” (Byron).

This potential “invasion of privacy” that is imposed on users by Facebook, however, is still not nearly as invasive as the Intercept Modernisation Programme proposed in the Communications Data Bill in the UK in 2008. According to Becky Hogge in her article inNew Statesmanin 2008, the program’s intent was “to log details about every web page [they] visit, every SMS message [they] text and every e-mail [they] send. And not only that, but to store all this ‘communication traffic’ information in a central database.” While this program is incredibly intrusive in the private lives of all UK citizens, its intent was for the purpose of national security and protection after the 2005 terrorist bombings in London. This program would ultimately “dramatically reduce the cost of mass surveillance, and allow the security services and other law enforcers to trace friendship trees … and thereby to hunt for potential conspirators as yet unknown to the authorities, subjecting them in turn to more intrusive surveillance techniques” (Hogge). The entire concept is a catch-22 because although it invades the private lives of UK citizens tremendously, it also allows for more extreme safety measures to be enforced by the government in order to protect the public.

While the bottom line definition of an “invasion of privacy” will vary from person to person, most will agree that our lives have become significantly less private with the introduction of new technology and social networking. It is unnerving to imagine that all information that we may have ever entered into any online program or website can be available to almost anyone that tries to access it, but if there is a beneficial way to use that information — focused advertising, national security, etc. — the “invasion” isn’t so much a danger as it is a revolutionary tool for social and technological innovation.

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