Add to My MSN

Facebook, Privacy, and Social Norms

4/6/2012 1:28:00 PM

Tags: Facebook, privacy, password, social norm, Supreme Court, Congress, Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Department of Homeland Security, Sam Ross-Brown

 Lock and Safe 

In July 2010, Pew Research Center released a report on the online habits of Millennials. The experts involved in the study, who were mostly academics and leaders at companies like Google and Microsoft, concluded that social networking will only grow in importance despite privacy concerns. In particular, many argued that sites like Facebook had created new social norms around which the barriers between “public” and “private” information were being recast. The study echoed a controversial statement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg made earlier in 2010—that, among young people, privacy is no longer a “social norm.”  

That argument may be a little harder to make today. In addition to debates over Facebook privacy settings, over the past several weeks, controversies have erupted in a number of states over employers and schools asking for Facebook passwords from applicants, employees, and students. And while everyone seems to agree that those employers are overstepping their bounds, actually doing something about it is tougher than you might think.

For one thing, legislation is woefully outdated, says the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC. The closest thing to a law protecting online privacy is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986—a good 10 years before widespread Internet use, not to mention smartphones and other new media. So most of the law’s provisions apply only to landline phones and physically stored data, rather than the smartphones, social media, and “cloud” storage that have become such a large part of 21st century life. For something like email, the rules are complex and cumbersome, reflecting an early understanding of the technology, says the Center for Democracy and Technology. If you happen to store your email on a home computer, it is fully protected and requires a warrant to be searched. But if you use a cloud computing service (say, Gmail), anything you store online can be accessed without a warrant. That includes webmail, photo sharing sites like Flickr, spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs—basically, much of what now makes up many people’s personal and professional lives.

The rules for social networking sites are even more complicated. While law enforcement generally needs a search warrant to access a suspect’s social network account, they can do so without the knowledge of the suspect, reports GOOD. Facebook actually seems to be alone on this policy, as Twitter and Google have their own rules about notifying their users of law enforcement action. In fact, Twitter had to fight for its notification rule against a federal court ruling in Virginia. And, according to EPIC, at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has an ongoing program of setting up fictitious user accounts on Facebook and Twitter to follow suspects’ posts (also without their knowledge). 

Whether or not the DHS program is legal or constitutional is not all that clear. Without more relevant legislation, no one really knows where to draw the line—high courts being no exception. In 2010, the Supreme Court heard two cases on email privacy, and both times, they chose not to address constitutional privacy issues, reports the National Legal Research Group. Wrote Anthony Kennedy in the first case’s majority opinion: “The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear.” The implication apparently being that until innovation stops and lets us take a breather, we should be careful about fleshing anything out too much.  

To be fair, Congress has (half-heartedly) taken up some of these issues. Late last month, Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter proposed an amendment to the FCC Process Reform Act called “Mind Your Own Business on Passwords,” says The Atlantic. While the amendment—which was almost immediately voted down—did not address government snooping, it would have prohibited employers from asking for workers’ passwords on sites like Facebook. The strange reality is that, because of the vote and Facebook’s own reaction to the controversy, the social networking site now has stronger privacy rules than the U.S. government—at least when it comes to password protection.        

That fact should be pretty alarming. But if we go back to Zuckerburg’s “social norm” argument, it does make some sense. Because technology moves so quickly, and because it has such a big influence over our lives, it’s easy to simply accept new customs and rules without seriously thinking about their impact. The Facebook password cases are unique because they don’t involve government agencies or third parties breaking and entering to access private data. Rather, they involve users willingly giving up their privacy when pressured by people in positions of power.

The real danger here is that social media are still very new, so if a practice like that became more accepted, it could be difficult to undo. Laws and court rulings can be repealed or overturned, but social norms can be much more permanent. Challenging them might mean rethinking our place in the brave new interconnected world. 

Sources: Pew Research Center, The Guardian, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Democracy and Technology, GOOD, National Legal Research Group, The Atlantic, Tech Crunch.  

Image by rpongsaj, licensed under Creative Commons 



Related Content

The End of Shame?

Over-sharing on Google, Facebook, and blogs could destroy shame as we know it....

The Costs of Constant Contact: iCan’t Put Down My iPhone

Technology is currently crying out for your attention. Twitter wants to know, “What are you doing?” ...

Your Life as a Game

New social games are breaking down the line between work, play, and life, and creating a world where...

How to Get Your Privacy Back from Facebook

Every time privacy policies are tweaked at Facebook, you should be worried. Here's how to wrestl...

Content Tools




Post a comment below.

 






Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!