Privacy For Sale

Privacy For Sale

Facebook. FB. FBI. Coincidence?

Not at all, claim many satirical publications and conspiracy theorists. Zuckerberg’s $50 billion operation is often associated with modern-day “Big Brother-is-watching-you” anxieties, yet many students are too humble (or perhaps too naïve) to consider the potential repercussions of their online profile. Even if you think your page is inconsequential, how important is it to take measures to stay cyber-safe in cyberspace?


To gain a little context here, let’s pause to consider how much Facebook actually knows about its users. Of course, certain basic details are required for sign-up: Name, age, gender, contact information, friends. Users might also provide hometown, relationship status, workplace, family members, hobbies and interests, photographs, and possibly current GPS location. People publish their feelings, “likes”, opinions, and they message or chat with other Facebook users. They may even “Facebook stalk” other users, potential employees, ex-partners, lecturers, the person next door, some long-lost fill-in-the-blank.

Well, so what? The frequency of Facebook lexicon has normalised the social network experience for much of the student population, and many don’t think twice before revealing their lives online. Most users would argue that typical profile information is nothing more than what they would share with a friend. That may be true, but FB isn’t your BFF. Unlike your close mates, Facebook doesn’t forget anything, ever. Facebook will never lie to the law for you. And, most annoyingly, Facebook is a gossiper. Approximately 840 million subscribers are happy to share their information. But do these people truly realise the extent and the consequences of their online sharing?

When you use a website such as Facebook, every word that you type, every link that you click, plus your browser and computer information – which can often uniquely identify you – is stored. This information forms a sort of profile about you, and this profile can be passed on to third-party advertisers, which is why these ads seem to follow you throughout cyberspace.

Should users be concerned by this semi-invasion of personal privacy? Generally, the storage of such information is only concerning when it’s released without consent. That’s why Facebook asserts that any personal data passed on to third-parties is entirely anonymous, and that’s why personal privacy settings are available for individuals to monitor. However, it’s not always safe to assume that a websites’ privacy policies are hole-proof. Austrian student Max Schrems recently challenged Zuckerberg’s protection of users’ data, and has since provoked further improvements regarding subscriber anonymity and personal consent.


Schrems, a 24 year-old law student, was bewildered to receive 1,222 files of personal data after he formally requested a copy of his details from the world’s largest social network (his Facebook account was only a year old). As expected, the report contained his current profile details. But concerningly it also contained a large amount of unexpected personal information obviously retained by Facebook, information such as time and date of internet activity, time and content of sent and received messages, and records of every link “liked” or posted, every person “poked” or “friended”. Facebook had archived friend requests, email addresses, employment details and GPS locations, amongst other data – much of which Schrems had “deleted”.

Schrems’s experience inspired him to form an activist group, called Europe vs. Facebook. The organisation’s aim is to increase transparency on Facebook, and thus allow users to be more informed about their online experience. The Europe vs. Facebook website lists four main objectives:

Transparency: Currently, it is almost impossible for the user to really know what happens to his or her personal data when using Facebook.

Opt-in instead of opt-out: Facebook claims that all users have consented to the use of their personal data, yet Facebook is an “opt-out” system. This means that unless users change their preset privacy settings, most personal data will be visible without restrictions.

Decide yourself: Only the individual users should be able to consent to the use of his or her data. Currently, other users can “tag” individuals without that individual’s consent.

Data minimisation: Facebook currently offers no sufficient way of deleting old junk data. Even if an individual deletes his or her account, Facebook will keep some of the personal information.


Many of the current changes within Facebook’s privacy policy are due to the Europe vs. Facebook movement. Just last month, Facebook announced an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (the regulatory oversight agency in the United States) to aid users’ control over privacy and sharing. Europe vs. Facebook has tightened and clarified laws set out by the US-EU Safe Harbour Framework, which is basically collaboration between the United States and Europe about collection and storage of personal data. The equivalent oversight agency for countries outside of the United States and Canada is the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC). Therefore, the internationality of Facebook means that Schrems’s efforts have ricocheted from Austria throughout the Western world.

Despite these improvements to Facebook’s privacy policies, we must keep in mind that Facebook is not the a free service, it is a business. Facebook is a profit-seeking company, as one insightful commentator put it “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product, not the consumer.” Thus, “sharing” will always be Facebook’s agenda.


Andrew Ferguson, the Deputy Proctor at the Uni, has dealt first-hand with students’ negative Facebook experiences, and is baffled by students’ willingness to share. He likens Facebook to “… putting your life on a public notice board. How much do you really want to share?” Not only does Ferguson’s comparison highlight the pretentiousness of public display of personal details, but also the vulnerability associated with exposure.

“We’ve dealt with a number of issues in which people have abused others through Facebook. It’s becoming more and more of a problem. People have the ability to abuse others in front of a wider audience and with less consent.” Due to Facebook’s “tagging” features, users are able to associate other users with photos and posts without consent. “There are very few controls [to restrict abuse].”
Before blaming Facebook, however, we must remember that using it is a personal choice. No one is forced to create an account, and users need to be responsible for their own information. Extending Ferguson’s metaphor, Facebook is simply the notice board.

Ferguson iterated that the University takes Facebook abuse very seriously, “Our Ethical Behavioural Policy covers media like this. If a student feels like someone is insulting them, then they can come to us and we will deal with that.”

Obviously, the simplest and safest defence against Facebook bullying is to not subscribe. For many students, however, abstinence is not a realistic option. Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, as well as an effort-free medium for communicating ideas, requests, invites and much more, to many people simultaneously. With this in mind, Ferguson urges students to be “very careful” about what they divulge to the “public arena” that is cyberspace.
“Even after you think you’ve deleted something, people may have copied your data ... People should be aware that there are predators trolling through Facebook, looking at photos and names. Don’t ever share anything confidential.”
“There are students here who will need to change their name down the track [for safety reasons]. I don’t understand why they feel the need to share so much online.”


Keep in mind that, regardless of privacy settings, a subpoena doesn’t need to add you as a friend before a judge can pull your profile content. I’m sure that many readers are sitting smugly in the knowledge that they’ve restricted the privacy on their Facebook account. A) It’s important to check your privacy settings regularly to ensure the protection of your personal information, but B) Remember that privacy settings mean nada when the police are involved.

Every year, some students seem to think that it’s funny to post photos of themselves dancing around burning couches and getting up to other similarly illegal antics. However, Ferguson has a warning: “The University does look at those sites and give information to us.” The public nature of social media makes it simple for police to exploit these avenues of information without a warrant or court order. Online personal information – if requested as part of a legal investigation – is no longer the user’s property.

In fact, material uploaded onto Facebook is never really the user’s property. Even if your page is available to “friends only”, your data could be copied, saved, and distributed (by a “friend”) without your consent and even without your knowledge.

The second-best solution to abstinence, therefore, would be modesty. Post with the knowledge that what you’re uploading may be available for public consumption in many years to come. Stay humble, yes, but don’t be naïve. As for the conspiracy theorists, well, let’s not get too excited about the potentials of mass population surveillance. Frequent status updates are annoying, but they’re not going to send us to hell in a handbasket.
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2012.
Posted 6:37pm Sunday 11th March 2012 by Katie Kenny.