Privacy issues of Social Networks

Introduction (Kadri-Liis Piirsalu)

’If you feel like someone is watching you, you're right. If you're worried about this, you have plenty of company. If you're not doing anything about this anxiety, you’re just like almost everyone else.’ (Bob Sullivan, 2011)
Many people increasingly utilize social Networks, such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Orkut, Linked in and etc. These networks allow users to publish details about themselves and their lives and also connect to their friends and colleagues. However some of the information revealed in these networks should remain private and not published at all. Companies that operate social networks are actually themselves collecting a range of data about their users (FB, Google, Twitter, MySpace etc.), both to personalize the services for the users, but more relevant in terms of privacy issues to sell this data to advertisers. [8]
Users publishing Detailed personal information and information about their preferences and daily life is a great opportunity for marketers, now, knowing all peoples likings and disliking’s to better target them with their marketing messages.
The availability of personal information online is also an opportunity for identity thieves, scam artists, debt collectors and, stalkers to use the information that people themselves have voluntarily provided in a ways harmful for the owner of the information.
Social networking sites vary greatly in the levels of privacy offered and required. With the mushrooming and unfrequented popularity of these network sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Google+, Rate, Orkut and more undesirable security and privacy risk issues have emerged [3]. For instance Facebook, currently the king of the social network sites, encourages its users to use their real names and upload personal information on their profile page. Facebook profile includes birthday’s, addresses’, telephone numbers and more intimate details such as interests, hobbies, relationship status and sexual preference. After one posting all that on his/hers profile page, one can imagine how thin his/hers privacy actually becomes. Another good illustrative example of how one cannot take back what information has been revealed about oneself, first internet rule: go and Google yourself you can find at least two pages of details about who you are, what are your hobbies and what are you or have been involved with.
This paper will examine the different types of social network sites and provides insight into privacy issues in social networking services, on social media sharing services and in location based networking. The paper also discusses about the role of convergence in the light of emerged privacy issues.

Types of social network sites

The increasing sophistication of information technology with its capacity to collect, analyse and disseminate information is posing significant threats to social networks users privacy. It is now common wisdom that the power, capacity and speed of information technology are accelerating rapidly. The extent of privacy invasion or certainly the potential to invade privacy increases correspondingly. [1]
Ambient location sites, Photo sharing sites, video sharing sites, geolocation networks, blogs, microblogs, curation sites- trying to understand the essence and characteristics all of these different types of social network sites can feel like trying to understand or explain rocket science. Many social networks can be broken up into many categories and most networks fall into more than one category [6]. The present paper is outlining the 3 most daily used social networking sites giving examples and characteristics in order to understand the spectrum of the issue with social network privacy.

Every minute of the day:

• 100,000 tweets are sent
• 684,478 pieces of content are shared on Facebook
• 2 million search queries are made on Google
• 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube
• 47,000 apps are downloaded from the App Store
• 3,600 photos are shared on Instagram
• 571 websites are created
• $272,000 is spent by consumers online (source: AllTwitter)

1. Social Networking Sites

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, MySpace

Micro- blogging is similar to blogs, it is a micro journal of what is happening right now, people share what is going on in their individual life or information individual wants to share. [7].
In general terms these sites allow users to add friends, send messages and share content.

2. Social Media Sharing Sites

Photo sharing Instagram, Flickr, Photobucket, Picasa and video sharing Youtube, Vimeo, iMemories, audio sharing SoundCloud, MySpace and etc.

These social networking sites allow users to easily share video and photography content online. Photo sharing sites allow people to upload photos to share either privately with only selected other users or publicly. Creative commons licensing rights can grant permissions for others to use the photos by simply embedding the codes in their blogs [7]. Video Sharing sites are similar to photo sharing; users upload video content to a site for sharing either privately or public.

3. Location Based Networks

Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt

Typically entered via smart phones, these applications rather than social networking sites feature check- in capabilities so that users can, if they choose, share their location with their social connections.

Privacy concerns regarding Social Media Sharing Services (Dagmar Mäe)

Social media sharing services are services, which allow its users to generate and share different types of content. Youtube and Vimeo are an example for sharing service for video and audio, Instagram and flicker are the ones for sharing photos and there are many more. However the aim of this paper is not to go in depth into what kind of different sharing service providers, platforms, apps and etc. there are on the market but to discuss about the privacy issues that arise with sharing different kinds of content on these networks.

Although the Issues of online privacy has been a problem for the general public for a long time it has started to grow rapidly due to technology, to be more precise in case of sharing services- smart phones that easily enables anyone to make content and share it with just one click of a button. Due to high penetration of smartphones with photo and video creation and sharing opportunities, the amount of personal content available online is has been increasing rapidly in the last years.
Posting Content such as picture and video arise new privacy concerns due to their context revealing details about the physical and social context of the subject.
Ahern, Eckles et al. (2007: 357) analysing the issue and conducting studies on Privacy Patterns and Considerations in online and mobile photo sharing claim: The growing amount of online personal content exposes users to a new set of privacy concerns. Digital cameras, and lately, a new class of camera phone applications that can upload photos or video content directly to the web, make publishing of personal content increasingly easy. Privacy concerns are especially acute in the case of multimedia collections, as they could reveal much of the user’s personal and social environment.[9]

Commonly users do not think or are not even aware of the risks when they share something online. Based on Das and Sahoo (2011) survey often the decision about sharing something is “made on the moment”, however in todays networked world, the next day the content you have shared is accessible to parents, teachers, employers, spouse, criminal or a marketing company. [10]
Once there is content shared online, it might be very difficult to take it offline again and it will remain there for everybody to see.
Aware and Obama (2009) state: Far too many users believe that their postings on the Internet are private between them and the recipient. The reality, however, is that once the statement is typed, it can be copied, saved and forwarded. In addition, the user no longer owns all the information posted to social networks. “So if you’re using Gmail or Yahoo mail or Flickr or. YouTube or belong to Facebook … you’ve given up complete control of your personal information’ [11]
Certain pictures or videos shared online have cost a number of people their jobs or ruined their job opportunities.
Das and Sahoo (2009) claim that for many employers looking up the material about prospective employees online is essential part of hiring process. To illustrate the situation they bring an example of Moorey (2009): The president of a consulting company in Chicago decided to check one of the candidate’s Facebook page, and found descriptions of marijuana, shooting people and obsessive sex. Finally the candidate was rejected for this.’ [10]

Video and photo sharing services can pose a great threat especially for teenagers and youngsters, due to their vulnerability. Although This topic a very important and sensitive issue which requires more in-depth discussion, the purpose of this paper is to briefly discuss the privacy concerns regarding social sharing networks and therefore the issue in this paper is not discussed as in depth as the topic in reality would require. However it is important to mention that there has been a number of cases when youngsters have been harassed by paedophiles online and these cases have also led to suicide An example for this could be Amanda Todd’s case, a 15 years old teenager who committed a suicide due to a bully who posted a picture of his boobs which was taken a year ago and not even voluntarily but after being urged to “flash”.

However social sharing networks does not only raise privacy issues regarding the people sharing content about them. Lipton (2009: 4) claims: ’We are witnessing the emergence of a worrying new trend: peers intruding into each other’s privacy and anonymity with video and multi-media files in ways that harm the subjects of the digital files.’ [12]
There is no rules or regulations to protect individuals from accidentally having an embarrassing photo or video taken of them and then posted on the web for others to see. Using the words of Lipton (2009) again: ’While copyright law has proved extremely effective in protecting property rights online, it is of little assistance to those seeking to protect privacy.’[12]
One good example to illustrate this issue is the case of The Korean Dog Poop Girl.

The woman was on the subway in her native South Korea when her dog decided that this was a good place to do its business.
The woman made no move to clean up the mess, and several fellow travellers got agitated. The woman allegedly grew belligerent in response. One of the travellers posted the picture online and soon her identity and past was revealed.
Humiliated in public and indelibly marked, the woman reportedly quit her university.
(Jonathan Krim, 2005)

Now famous as a person who does not clean up after his dog or as a Dog Poop Girl, the woman is most probably finding it very hard to find employment.

Although picture can tell a thousand words it can as well create wrong impression of what was actually happening. Lipton (2009) suggests: The fact that individuals can instantly snap a photograph without even thinking to carry a camera, and that they can then disseminate that image instantaneously and globally at the push of a button, raises significant problems of decontextualization.[12]
Just to bring a simple example, people going to abortion clinic can have millions of other reasons to visit the clinic than having an abortion herself.
To conclude, the question of privacy in terms of social Sharing networks is still an issue that needs to be solved. However the solution for this will not be the easy one as it does not only regard the privacy of content creators who themselves due to rising awareness of privacy threats online could post less revealing content about themselves but also what needs to be solved is how to protect individuals who happen to be the subjects of the content without their own permission.

Privacy concerns regarding Social networking services (Tõnis Vassar)

The following chapter looks into the privacy issues of social networking services. Social Networking sites as mentioned earlier are the sites aimed for micro-blogging, to document about ones life, his/hers likings and dislikings and everyday happenings.

Susan B. Barnes a Professor in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York claims that in America, people live in a paradoxical world of privacy. As we know people will freely give up personal information to join social networks on the Internet and social networking tools have almost become indispensable for them.
For example, teenagers reveal their intimate thoughts and behaviors online and, on the other hand, government agencies and marketers are collecting personal data about us. /…/ Many people may not be aware of the fact that their privacy has already been jeopardized and they are not taking steps to protect their personal information from being used by others. [14]

Social networking sites (such as Facebook, Orkut) create a central repository of personal information. These archives are persistent and cumulative. Instead of replacing old information with new materials, online journals are archive–oriented compilations of entries that can be searched. While American adults are concerned about how the government and corporations are centrally collecting data about citizens and consumers, teenagers are freely giving up personal and private information in online journals. Herein lies the privacy paradox. Adults are concerned about invasion of privacy, while teens freely give up personal information. This occurs because often teens are not aware of the public nature of the Internet. [14]

Facebook has met criticism on a range of issues, including online privacy, child safety and hate speech. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has identified two personal information aggregation techniques called "connections" and "instant personalization" that assure anyone has access even to personal information you may not have intended to be public. [15]
You create a "Connection" to most of the things that you click a "Like button" for, and Facebook will treat those relationships as public information. If you Like a Page on Facebook, that creates a public connection. If you Like a movie or restaurant on a non-Facebook website (and if that site is using Facebook's OpenGraph system), that creates a public connection to either the applicable Page on Facebook or the affiliated website. [16]

It notes that "For users that have not opted out, Instant Personalization is instant data leakage. As soon as you visit the sites in the pilot program (Yelp, Pandora, and Microsoft Docs) the sites can access your name, your picture, your gender, your current location, your list of friends, all the Pages you have Liked — everything Facebook classifies as public information. Even if you opt out of Instant Personalization, there's still data leakage if your friends use Instant Personalization websites — their activities can give away information about you, unless you block those applications individually." [16]

There has been many more privacy issues with Facebook. For example, in August 2007, the code used to generate Facebook's home and search page as visitors browse the site was accidentally made public, according to leading Internet news sites. [17] In November 2009, Facebook launched Beacon, a system where third-party websites could include a script by Facebook on their sites, and use it to send information about the actions of Facebook users on their site to Facebook, prompting serious privacy concerns. [18] In June 2011 Facebook enabled an automatic facial recognition feature called "Tag Suggestions". The feature compares newly uploaded photographs to those of the uploader's Facebook friends, in order to suggest photo tags. Facebook has defended the feature, saying users can disable it. European Union data-protection regulators said they would investigate the feature to see if it violated privacy rules. [19]

Chunka Mui wrote in Forbes that Facebook has essentially become a worldwide photo identification database. Paired with related research, we’re looking at the prospect where good, bad and ugly actors will be able identify a face in a crowd and know sensitive personal information about that person. These developments mean that we no longer have to worry just about what Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and other social sites do with our data; we have to worry about what they enable others to do, too. And it now seems that others will be able to do a lot. [20]

When Consumer Reports released its annual report on Internet privacy and security they placed Facebook front and center. The "State of the Net" research and statistics from Consumer Reports suggest that there is an overall increase in certain digital problems — such as ID thefts, phishing schemes, and security breaches — in the past year, while issues related malware and unauthorized credit charges are occurring neither more nor less frequently than in the prior 12 months. The most startling findings however, involve how much Facebook knows about its nearly 900 million members, and how much we freely offer — information mined by employers, insurers, the IRS, divorce lawyers, as well as identity thieves and other criminals. [21]

While U.S. legislators speak out against employers requesting Facebook passwords from employees, the following information — much of it sensitive and potentially damaging — doesn't require special access to uncover: 4.7 million “liked” a Facebook page about health conditions or treatments (details an insurer might use against you); 4.8 million have used Facebook to say where they planned to go on a certain day (a potential tip-off for burglars); 20.4 million included their birth date, which can be used by identity thieves; 39.3 million identified family members in their profile; 900K discussed finances on their wall; 1.6 million liked a page pertaining to racial or ethnic affiliations; 2.3 million liked a page regarding sexual orientation; 7.7 million liked a page pertaining to a religious affiliation; 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their wall; 4.6 million discussed their love life on their wall. [21]

Location based social networks and privacy (Alessandro Nani)

Location based social networks are part of what is called Location based services (LBS).
They are made possible by linking Global positioning system (GPS), which track user’s location, to the capabilities of the World Wide Web, along with other vital features such as instant messaging. [22]

Location-Based Social Networks (LBSN) derive from LBSs and are often referred to as Geosocial Networking. . As reported in Microsoft Research “a LBSN does not only mean adding a location to an existing social network so that people in the social structure can share location-embedded information, but also consists of the new social structure made up of individuals connected by the interdependency derived from their locations in the physical world as well as their location-tagged media content, such as photos, video, and texts” [23]
Further, the connection between users goes beyond sharing physical locations but also involve sharing knowledge like common interests, behaviour, and activities.

Such pervasive tools represent a challenge to privacy.

LBSN users face the situation that the information they publish on the such platforms could be used to track their whereabouts and could facilitate unwanted situations like being the victim of stalking.

The Guardian warns " Privacy advocates fear that Foursquare, along with other geolocation apps such as Gowalla and Google Latitude, are vulnerable to "data scraping", namely, the sophisticated trawling and monitoring of user activity in an effort to build a rich database of personal information. The big worry, say critics, is who might get to make use of this information’’ [24]

Specifically the insurgence of applications designed to function as venues information aggregators can potentially represent a major threat to privacy and LBSN.

In March 2012 Foursquare had to tackle the discovery of a Russian-built app called Girls Around Me. As the name suggests, Girls Around Me used Foursquare’s API to display and filter people by geographical position and gender, then, once a first list was compiled, the app was able to search in Facebook for those girls that had the two accounts linked together and, finally, provided their pictures to the app user. Foursuare replied to the issue by shutting down the app soon after its discovery, however Girls around Me, and similar app available on the market, posed serious questions of the nature of certain apps and their use. and further more it proved that LBSN offer services and features potentially threatening users privacy and safety [25]

Another issue related to is known as ‘opt-in’ vs ‘opt-out’ default settings. An opt-in scenario refers to having default settings where a platform requires user to join or sign up to specific given service in order to receive the benefits of it. The provider is then granted permission to access the user's data and to offer the service. An opt-out scenario refers to having default settings where a platform includes all users as the ‘beneficiaries’ of a given service. Users must change the settings themselves if they don’t won’t the particular service. An example of opt-out scenario within LBSN is given by Facebook Messenger for iPhone and Android. Thanks to its settings the app sends message recipients the location of the sender by default. This, if not tackled by opting-out can represent, for some users, a relevant bridge of privacy that however the user agreed with when decided to download and use the app. [26]

Sites Convergence

A recent issue related to privacy on today’s internet is the that users often have ‘profiles’ and accounts on different site that due to their different nature a number of information become publicly available that if puzzled together provide a picture of the user in certain cases more private that the user would like to be.

Example 1: subject A is an entrepreneur, he has established his own company, has a profile in Linkedin and Facebook and an account in Foursquare. He is concerned with privacy so he is careful about what to publish in each site. Due to the nature of each social network he is however obliged to give some information out to make his profiles ‘normal’. Subject B has an interest in subject A information, using the internet he will, with minimum effort, discover: Subject A date of birth from the public companies registry, in certain cases his home address (if subject A is a freelancer could have his company registered at his home address), his working history and eventual other current jobs from Linkedin and his habits from Facebook and Foursquare if monitored regularly on a period of time.

Example 2-convergence of sites: Subject A is the same as in example 1, subject C is a company like Linkedin. In 2012, LinkedIn announced its acquisition of the start-up Rapportive,[27] which created a browser plug-in taking contact information from social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and placing them into Google's Gmail. Such acquired information, together with the information LinkedIn already has using its own database, could provide a good picture of users’ habits and private information.

Pete Cashmore, founder and CEO of Mashable, argues “Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun […] Those who insert themselves into as many channels as possible look set to capture the most value. They'll be the richest, the most successful, the most connected, capable and influential among us. We're all publishers now, and the more we publish, the more valuable connections we'll make. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, Fitbit and the SenseCam give us a simple choice: participate or fade into a lonely obscurity” [28]

Another issue linked to convergence of sites and/or content is companies’ direct acquisitions. In December 2011 Facebook acquired Gowalla in order to able, with Timeline, to provide a wider service offering users an extra tool (geolocation) to add to their profile. Such move raised a number of questions about the consequent acquisition of Gowalla users’ data by Facebook especially in relation to Facebook’s policy of using their users’ profiles to offer marketers a targeting system based on users’ ‘likes’ before strengthen today with their preferences and whereabouts able to enhance geomarketing and all marketing strategies more in general[29]


Here is a video of the social experiment done in Belgium to illustrate the seriousness of privacy issues in social networks. This video reveals the magic behind the magic, making people aware of the fact that their entire life can be found online.


1. Privacy and Human Rights, An International Survey of Privacy Laws and Practice. Global Internet Liberty Campaign. Available at:

2. Pring, C. (2012) The Social Skinny.100 More Social Media Statistics For 2012. Available at:

3. Madden, M. (2012) Pew Internet. Privacy Management on Social Media Sites. Published on February 24. Available at:

4. Identity Fraud. BBC One Watchdog. Available at:

5. Lewis, K. (2011) How Social Media Networks Facilitate Identity Theft and Fraud. Entrepreneurs Organization. Available at:

6. McIntosh, K. (2012) Different Types of Social Media. Social-Ology. Published on March 6. Available at:

7. Austin, B. (2012) Different Types of Social Networks. SEO Positive. Published on January 24. Available at:

8. Sullivan, B. (2011) Social Media Polarizes Our Privacy Concerns. Facebook And Its Competitors Are Challenging Long-Held Perceptions of Privacy. Published on October 3. Available at:

9. Ahern, D., Eckles, D., Good, N., King, S., Naaman, M., Nair, R. (2007) ‘Over –Exposed? Privacy Patterns and Considerations in online and Mobile Photo Sharing’
Paper available on http:

10. Das, B., Sahoo, J.S. (2011) Social Networking Sites – A Critical Analysis of Its Impact on Personal and Social Life.’ Article published on International Journal of Business and Social Science, Vol.2 No.14, available on

11. Aware, U. B., Obama, M. (2008) ‘Perils of the Internet.’
Article available on

12. Lipton, J.D. (2009) “We, the Paparazzi”: Developing a Privacy Paradigm for Digital Video. Article available at

13. Krim. J. (2005) Subway Fracas Escalates Into Test of the Internet’s Power to Shame
Article published on 07.07.2005 at

14. Susan B. Barnes (September 4, 2006). A privacy paradox: Social Networking in United States, First Monday, Volume 11, Number 9,

15. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Criticism of Facebook,

16. Richard Esguerra (April 28, 2010). A Handy Facebook-to-English Translator, Electronic Frontier Foundation,

17. Hoffman, Harrison (August 12, 2007). "Facebook's source code goes public". CNET;

18. Ortutay, Barbara (September 21, 2009). "Facebook to end Beacon tracking tool in settlement". USA Today;

19. Kyle James (September 6, 2011). "Facebook facial recognition raises eyebrows in Germany, EU". Deutsche Welle;

20. Chunka Mui (August 8, 2011). "Facebook's Privacy Issues Are Even Deeper Than We Knew." Forbes,

21. Rosa Golijan (2012), Consumer Reports: Facebook privacy problems are on the rise, NBC News,

22. Wolny, P. (2012) Foursquare and other location based services. Checking in, staying safe and being savvy. Rosen Publishing Group, New York

23. Microsoft (2012) Location based social networks. Retrieved from

24. Hickman, L. (2010) How I became a Foursquare cyberstalker. The Guardian. Retrieved from

25. Thompson, C. (2012) Girls Around Me highlights Foursquare’s biggest privacy flaw. Retrieved from

26. Cipriani, J. (2012) How to prevent Facebook Messenger from sharing your location. Retrieved from

27. Boulton, C. (2012) Linkedin buys rapportive Gmail contact plug-in. Retrieved from

28. Cashmore, P. (2009) Privacy is dead, and social media hold smoking gun. Retrieved from

29 Wasserman, T. (2012) Facebook's plans for Gowalla revealed. Retrieved from

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License