Web & communication software

Zuckerberg Comments Underscore Conflict Between Social Networking and Privacy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg added fuel to the ongoing privacy debate with recent statements that users no longer care about privacy. While the statement itself may be a little simplistic, the sentiment may be accurate and the success of Facebook is evidence to back up Zuckerberg's assertion.

Social networking and privacy are like oil and water. Privacy controls have to adapt as social networking evolves privacy needs.
In comments to TechCrunch's Michael Arrington, Zuckerberg said "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that's evolved over time."

Zuckerberg also told TechCrunch "We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are."

Zuckerberg is correct that the social norm of privacy is evolving--in large part thanks to sites like Facebook.

The Key Word is "Social"

It is not called "private networking". Facebook, and other social networking services like Twitter, MySpace, or LinkedIn, exist for the purpose of fostering social interactions. The very foundation of the concept relies on users sharing information about themselves in order to identify and connect with like-minded users.

If every aspect a Facebook profile was kept private so that only those in your network could see it, the ability to expand your network would be greatly limited. The reason I have many of my former high school classmates in my Facebook network is because I was able to search for them based on the information they shared in their profiles.

Facebook provides an environment that enables you to find other users in your area, or from your school, or with similar religious or political beliefs, or that like the same music. It can only do so by sharing information.

The fact is that if Facebook restricted and controlled the sharing of data the way some privacy groups would like, it wouldn't really be a social networking site and it wouldn't have over 350 million users willingly sharing information with each other.

Joining a "social" networking site and then complaining that your information is being shared is like buying an ice cream sundae and complaining that it's cold.

Not All Privacy is Created Equal

Privacy watchdog groups serve a purpose, but they can also take things too far. Taking issue with a financial institution for not safeguarding account information provides a service to society. Taking issue with a social networking site for being social seems like it's more a matter of looking for issues where they don't really exist to justify the existence of the organization.

Where the conflict begins is in defining which information should be private. Organizations fall under a variety of industry and regulatory mandates requiring that sensitive personal information be protected. Data like Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, personal health records, and other sensitive information has no business being shared openly.

However, where you ate dinner last night, or whether or not you like that new restaurant you tried, or the fact that you are upset that the Patriots were eliminated in the first round of the NFL playoffs don't qualify for the same type of privacy protection.

Walking a Tightrope

Granted, identity theft is a serious and growing problem. Sharing sensitive private data like Social Security and account numbers is an obvious breach of privacy. However, even mundane information like your favorite musician, first dog's name, or the street you grew up on provide potential clues for identity thieves to be able to answer security questions and access your accounts.

The goal of social networking, and the concept of privacy are essentially polar opposite. Social networking sites have to find a reasonable balance between sharing information and protecting user's data.

Facebook and other social networking sites must still face privacy concerns until the legal and regulatory framework catch up with the "social norms", or until they can successfully differentiate the information shared on social networks from the information that falls under privacy protection.

The bottom line, though, is that Facebook is a "social" network. You have a right to not share your information with other Facebook users, but that right doesn't allow you to control how Facebook runs its site. It just means that nobody is holding a gun to your head and you are welcome to not participate in social networking if you choose.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page.

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