The Privacy Virus
posted by James Grimmelmann
I’ve been thinking recently about social networking services and privacy. Certainly, they raise profiling and investigation concerns that seem quite familiar from debates about ISP and search engine surveillance. I’m becoming increasingly convinced, however, that they also present some quite distinctively social privacy issues. The flow of information within a Facebook or a LiveJournal both is deeply embedded in a particular set of social relationships and also regularly defies the expectations of the participants in those relationships. Hilarity, or rather privacy trouble, regularly ensues.
One of things I did when starting to ponder these privacy problems was to make a list of the ways in which social networking services encourage users to supply personal information. There are actually quite a few. Here’s an incomplete list:
- Explicit appeals to reciprocity: If someone tries to add you as a friend, it seems impolite to refuse.
- Implicit appeals to reciprocity: If friends have pictures on their pages, you’re spurning their social advances if you don’t have pictures on your page.
- Norming the network as “private” space: Facebook started on a college campus; people use it in ways that recreate the informality of students scribbling jokes on whiteboards posted to each others’ dorm-room doors.
- Norming the network as “safe” space: It’s hard to estimate the risk that releasing a little private information now will bite you later, so we use our peers’ actions as a heuristic to tell us whether it’s safe to speak freely here. If they share, you share.
- Creating a barter economy in personal information: By affiliating with new groups and adding more friends, you decrease the distance between you and others. That means more access: it opens up more profiles to your inspection (and vice-versa).
- Encouraging status competition: Facebook helpfully lists how many friends your friends have; can you blame Robert Scoble for wanting to have more than 5,000?
I could go on, but have you noticed the common pattern? All of these mechanisms use other people’s personal information to convince you to supply more of your own. Facebook is a privacy virus: an organism that reproduces itself within a social network by convincing infected hosts to use their own replication mechanisms to spread it to others. And the way it gets past our privacy defense mechanisms is to turn them against us: social network service interactions have almost all the indicia we look for in reassuring ourselves that we’re in a private setting, rather than out in public.