With the growing interest in social networking sites, Laura Woulfe examines the threat posed to personal privacy

With an estimated 2,219,020 Facebook users in Ireland alone, social networking has become a leading global phenomenon of the 21st century. Of this figure, which stands as 48% of the entire Irish population, 25-34 year olds are the largest category of participants, with 18-24 year olds following second. On a worldwide scale, Mark Zuckerberg confirmed on Thursday October 4th that Facebook now has one billion active members. As a result, it is not surprising that privacy with regard to social networking is a growing concern among internet users in Ireland as well as throughout the globe.

While a growing awareness has developed among the general public about online tracking and data collection, it is only a minority who understand how this collected information is used. What’s more, there are others who are unaware of the importance of internet privacy altogether. Labour MEP, Emer Costello told the Irish Times: “I really do believe people are very quick to give information away [online] without realising the implications of what they’re doing”.

Interestingly, the general public willingly give social networking sites details such as date of birth, address, age and other personal details without hesitation. Furthermore, consumers offer online shopping sites knowledge of their interests, likes and dislikes. Regardless, all of this information is retained in a data bank, yet it is only when this information combines, forming a profile of a person, that the subject is alerted to their online privacy.

Only earlier this year, Google were accused of disregarding the privacy settings of millions of iPhone users by discovering a way to track the users of the Safari web-browser. As is the reason for most online tracking, Google are thought to have been using the information in order to target advertisements to potential buyers. Google replied to the Wall Street Journal saying: “The Journal mischaracterises what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled.”

However, it is through the medium of social networking sites that advertising agencies gain most of their information. Logically, social networking sites that allow members to sign up free of charge use advertisements to earn money, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flicker and so on. Facebook, as the leading social network, allows companies to target possible customers according to location or interests, in order to ensure effective behavioural advertising. Recently, as the Wall Street Journal states: “It has also started selling ads that follow Facebook members beyond the confines of the social network.”

Moreover, in a bid to encourage more companies to advertise on the site, Facebook have recently partnered with Datalogix, a company that are now able to tell product marketers how many of their sales were due to advertisements featured on Facebook.

Despite recent protests among worried Facebook users, Facebook state under their Data Use Policy: “We may share your information when we have removed from it anything that personally identifies you or combined it with other information so that it no longer personally identifies you.” Each member upon joining Facebook agrees to these conditions. In addition, Facebook provides a Site Governance page where it presents all proposed changes to their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and Data Use Policy for the users to read and give feedback. However, only a meager 2,355,604 people have liked the page in comparison with a total one billion users.

Unfortunately, privacy issues are not confined to the use of data for advertisement targeting.  According to the Irish Times, with the introduction of the timeline, many Irish Facebook users claimed that private messages dating from 2007 and 2009 were visible on their timeline. In response, a Facebook spokesperson denied the accusation saying: “In some cases people may have used wall posts instead of private messages by mistake… No mechanism has ever been created that would allow a private message to be published on the timeline.”

Many Facebook users found the new face detection feature when uploading pictures unsettling and as a result the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) has recently ordered Facebook to delete all data of EU members used to run its automatic face detection and tag suggestions features by the middle of October.

However, the most distressing revelation in social networking and privacy was revealed in relation to Twitter. A site named WeKnowYourHouse.com was released in August 2012, describing itself as: “A social networking privacy experiment… designed to show what could happen when you tweet about being at home with locations enabled.”

The site selects tweets where people mention being at home and which include location data. By doing this, the perpetrators are then able to identify the possible location of the house and conclude by using Google Maps to show a picture of the house in Streetview. The site claims: “Only the past hour of data is displayed, after that it is fully deleted to protect the users privacy.”

WeKnowYourHouse.com reminds internet users of the possible dangers of distributing personal information on social networking sites. According to the American Newspaper, the Examiner: “Kidnappers are using social media to target their victims and violence to commit their crimes.”

Personal information distributed on the internet should always be treated with caution. Despite social networks’ privacy policies, privacy settings, and organizations such as the Data Protection Commissioner, the only hard and fast way of keeping your personal information private is not to divulge it on the web. While social networking sites are beneficial for connecting with friends and family worldwide, users should always be selective in order to guarantee privacy.