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Social Networks are tools that let us communicate with friends and family, share our lives with them, learn about theirs, and sometimes even to establish new relationships. Social Networks sites are being broadly used by young and adults all over the world, being the formers, the main target market of the largest Social Network of the world, Facebook. According to recent statistics which can be found in Facebook’s home page, the site has 500 million active users around the globe, who have an average of 130 friends in their contact’s lists. The same statistics also show that it is estimated that the average user spends around 58 minutes per day browsing the site, sharing and receiving information. Facebook has several places where different types of information can be shared, some of them are: personal profiles, which contain information such as names, age, address, school, phone number, email, etc.; walls, which allow user make any type of comments on other user’s wall; and photos, where any picture can be uploaded to the site, shared with everyone who has a Facebook account, and comment by anyone who is able to see the picture. Everything ruled by privacy restrains that can be set up by the users, where they have the option to choose what they want to show and who they want to share it with. Although Facebook presents a good alternative to interact with our friends when a real face-to-face interaction is not possible, one of its main issues is the danger that it represents to the privacy of its users. Facebook is constantly reinforcing its security systems and also improving the privacy configurations available; however, these efforts do not eliminate the problem. Probably, because it is not about how safe the system is or what options the users have to limit their profiles, but it is about the amount of information they share, the contacts they have on their lists, and the cleverness of the hackers.
One of the main threats to Facebook users’ privacy is the amount and type of information they share with others. The article “College Students’ Social Networking Experiences on Facebook” by Tiffany Pempek et al, from the department of psychology of the Georgetown University, shows the result of an investigation made with 92 college students regarding to their habits on Facebook. One of the sections of the report shows that more than 90% of the studied sample shares the following information categories on their profiles: Hometown, School, Gender and Birthday, but there are also other categories that less than 90% and more than 60% of the studied students share, such as: Political view, work, relationship status and sexual orientation. The paper also analyses personal walls and photos, which constitute the second half information sharing method on Facebook, and classifies the most common types of wall posts into the following categories: referring to inside jokes, to catch up, to make plans, commenting on profiles or pictures, just to say hello, to talk about courses, to tell a friend about a past event and to gossip about others. So, if users are sharing all this private information online what would happen if it falls in the wrong hands? This is a question that only users can avoid controlling what they post on the site.
Another threat to the privacy of Facebook users are the great numbers of contacts they have. As discussed above, an average Facebook user has 130 friends, but if we ask ourselves how many real friends we have and how many we can truly trust we would find out that this number is much smaller than 130. The problem is that among those 130 friends usually there is no differentiation between acquaintances, friends, close friends and family. In most of the cases people does not set up privacy restrictions to the different groups. “Students’ Facebook ‘friends’: public and private spheres” is a report of a study, presented on the Journal for Youth Studies, made to college students about the characteristics of their contacts on Facebook. The study, made by Anne West professor of the department of Social Studies of the London School of Economics, reported that the students of the sample had an average of 82 friends on the real world and an average of 200 friends on Facebook. The problem issue of such a difference is that personal information related to our daily lives is being shared with people who we barely know, and certainly we cannot trust.
The final threat to privacy, out of the control of Facebook, is the presence of hackers on the internet. During the years we have seen that security systems on Internet have been improving and becoming more complex; however, we also see constant ‘cyber attacks’ to different web sites with the purpose of stealing information. Such attacks demonstrate that hackers are keeping up with the security improvements enhancing their techniques as well. In the article “The Impact of Facebook on Our Students” written by Doug Fodeman director of technology at Brookwood School in Manchester, UK, it can be found that the main reason hackers have to attack social networks, is to steal financial information. The author says “Once phished, scammers use various applications to suck out personal information from a user’s entire network of friends. Scammers try using the phished information, including the login password, to access banks and credit card accounts because they know that most people have one password for all their accounts”(37). Showing that whenever this sort of attack occurs, the user compromises personal information, other accounts and also his friends. Since not all Facebook users are computer Geeks that know when to identify this kind of threats and how to avoid them, and hackers are constantly updating their methods it is hard to find a solution to the problem simply because there is nothing that Facebook can do to solve it definitely.
A couple of examples of what happens when the information falls in the wrong hands are given in “Facing Facebook: A Guide for Non-teens” by Del Siegle, associate professor of educational Psychology in the University of Connecticut. Siegle mentions the case of a young man, Facebook user, who was applying to a position in a police department, and was denied the job after finding pictures related to alcohol and college parties in his profile. The second example he gives says the following “A teaching candidate was pulled from his practicum assignment when an administrator at the school where he was assigned saw derogatory comments he had made about teachers at the school on his Facebook page”(16). These two examples clearly show that the consequences of posting and sharing private information on Facebook can produce serious problems to the users since “nothing posted to the Internet should ever be considered private” (Siegle, 16). Facebook as a social network and web site represents minimum threats to the privacy of its users compared to the risk that themselves represent to their own privacy, making the correct use of Facebook an ethical problem in today’s society. For our own good and convenience, it is our duty as users to control what we say, show and share on the internet.