Monday, September 19, 2011

Privacy and Social Networking Sites

College students are relying on the Internet to make connections with other
people every day (Lukianoff and Creeley, 2007; Verga, 2007; Hodge, 2006).
As the Internet has developed and grown, so have the capabilities for interaction.
Social networking sites are a part of college students’ regular daily
lives (Bugeja, 2006; Jones and Madden, 2002). With this new technology,
questions about ethical use and the lines of what is private and what is not
have become so blurry and misunderstood that students can find themselves
involved in situations that are less than desirable.
Social networking sites are a group of Web sites that provide people
with the opportunity to create an online profile and to share that profile
with others (Barnes, 2006). There are sites to meet almost any topic of
interest. The two most commonly used are MySpace, with over 80 million
unique users, and Facebook, with over 60 million unique users, about half
of whom are college students. MySpace and Facebook have a variety of
options and applications that make them attractive to a broad audience.
Because these are the most commonly used social networking sites, we focus
our discussion on them.
Little empirical research has been related to technology and privacy
issues, although numerous anecdotal and opinion articles explain social networking
sites and the negative actions taken by individuals on these sites.
Several articles address issues related to higher education, but few examine
the issues related to privacy. The topic of social networking sites has gathered
increasing amounts of attention from student affairs professionals.
Indeed, many formal and informal conversations at national conferences as

Understanding Privacy

Privacy is defined here as personal information that an individual deems
important and unattainable by the general population (Richards, 2007;
Hodge, 2006; Etzioni, 1997; Kaplin and Lee, 1997). Personal information
includes a person’s name, physical address, e-mail address, online user
name, telephone number, social security number, and any other information
with which that person could be identified (Blakely, 2007; Richards). Privacy
also involves the individual’s right to control the dissemination of personal
information (Berman and Bruening, 2001). Having the autonomy to
control the sharing of information and how it will be used and manipulated
is paramount to an individual’s right to privacy (Barnes, 2006). Berman and
Bruening stated, “When we talk about privacy, we are often talking about
personal autonomy as it relates to information about an individual” (p. 2).
When contemplating issues of privacy, there are two important considerations
to keep in mind: the intent of the information shared and the expectation
that it will remain private (Hodge, 2006). A person who willingly posts
information on a social networking site for others to view cannot assume it
is private because the intent is to share that information (Meredith, 2006).
When an individual uses privacy settings to prevent most users from viewing
his or her information, the user has an expectation that this information
will remain private (Hodge, 2006). This differs from e-mail, where the sender
intends the information to be sent to a specific individual, although this
information too can be accessed by others. Lindsay (2007) warns students
that anything they post online is public and cannot be assumed private.
Understanding privacy as it relates to social networking sites requires
understanding how personal information may be shared and the intent of
sharing it. Reszmierski and Ferencz (1997) spoke of privacy as an individual’s
right to control personal information. Much of the information posted
in a profile is in fact personal information that the individual willingly posts
to the site. Meredith (2006) stated that when an individual shares information
on a social networking site, he or she is sharing that information
with the rest of the world even if the intent was to share with only a select
group of people. It appears that people become sensitive about their privacy
when they feel that they are being exposed.
Individuals feel that it is within their rights under the First Amendment
to post information on a social networking site (Hodge, 2006). The First
Amendment does protect an individual’s right to speak, write, and gather
freely so far as it does not cause harm or incite violence (Verga, 2007). An
interesting dichotomy exists when students believe what they have written
is private and protected when in reality it is neither (Hodge, 2006). An
example is a student who posts negative comments about a faculty member,
including threats of a violent nature, on his or her social networking site
profile accessible to other members of the institution. The student does have
the right to post this information under the First Amendment; however,
if the faculty member or others in the community are threatened, the speech
is not protected. In this situation, privacy rights are not violated because the
student chose to share information in an open public forum.
Another gray area in regard to information posted on social networking
sites relates to how the information is accessed and used against an individual.
For example, underage students post pictures of themselves
consuming alcohol in a residence hall, which is used in a judicial hearing.
Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals are protected from illegal search
and seizure and guaranteed due process unless information is found in plain
view (Lindsay, 2005).When information is posted online by an individual,
such as pictures of underage drinking, it is no longer considered private
(Barnes, 2006). Information obtained from a social networking site is not
considered an illegal search of a person’s private information because it is
found in plain view in a public forum (Lane, 2006).
Many professionals may also question the impact of the Family Educational
Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) on the student’s right to privacy
related to social networking sites. FERPA was designed with respect to student
records on campus (Kaplin and Lee, 1997). It was created to protect
academic records, and the determining factor was that if the information
could identify a specific student, it was considered an educational record
and protected (Lindsay, 2007). Lindsay explained that this could include
class schedules, financial aid records, e-mails, and electronic records but
does not have to include directory information. Thus, FERPA has no control
over social networking sites because they are not connected to the institution
and are created and maintained by individual students.
Both Facebook and MySpace provide a clear privacy statement
to inform users about the limits of protection that the site maintains for the
information shared, as well as how the site will use the personal information
provided. These privacy policies do not delineate who can access the
information posted on the site but outline the actions that are taken by
the site’s administrators. The focus of these privacy statements is on what
information will be shared with a third party but does not speak to who else
may access the information posted. Little is known about whether individual
users read and are aware of privacy settings. However, when Facebook
created the news feed feature users were outraged that “friends” would be
informed of their actions on the site. Facebook states that it will do everything
possible to protect the information posted on the site but “cannot and
do not guarantee that User Content you post on the Site will not be viewed
by unauthorized persons” (Facebook, 2008). In addition to privacy policies
that outline how Web sites will protect personal information provided to
the company, the sites also outline who is responsible for the information
posted in a profile. Facebook (2008) states, “You may not want everyone in
the world to have the information you share on Facebook; that is why we
give you control of your information.” Both MySpace and Facebook provide
advice to parents and users about how to keep the information shared in the
profile protected. MySpace cautions users, “Don’t forget that your profile
and MySpace forums are public spaces” (MySpace, 2008). Chris Hughes,
cofounder of Facebook, stated in a personal conversation with us that Facebook
has provided ways for students to continue to connect online and that
it is up to the user to protect his or her own information by using the tools
provided on the site (Hughes, 2007). The tools provided to social networking
site users include a set of privacy controls that users can alter to prevent
others from viewing all information shared in a profile. On most sites, the
default or automatic setting allows the profile to be seen by the maximum
number of people. On Facebook, the default setting for a profile is that all
members of the person’s network can view the entire profile. On MySpace,
the default setting for a profile is that all users on MySpace can view a user’s
profile. On Facebook, if a user leaves the privacy setting at the default, his
or her profile will be visible to less than 0.5 percent of the entire Facebook
community (Wischnowsky, 2007). The privacy options that are available for
users on other sites vary. On most sites, a user can restrict who can see the
profile and is given options to create a limited profile that makes parts of his
or her information unavailable to all friends. On Facebook, students can
select who can search for their profile, which means they can restrict faculty
and staff from viewing it. Although these options are available, many
students do not use the privacy settings (Barnes, 2006).

Understanding Social Networking Sites

Social networking sites are set up to provide individuals with a means for
communicating and interacting with one another. To join a site, individuals
sign up as a member; this process may include providing personal information
such as an e-mail address, permanent address, or a zip code. Users
then create a sign-in name and password for their personal profile, a requirement
that creates a false sense of security and the impression that their
information is private, similar to entering a gated community (Hodge,
2006). It is easy to understand why students may be disillusioned about
what is considered private.
A profile contains information that an individual chooses to share
within the site. Most profiles provide users with the option to share home
town, address, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers. There are also opportunities
for users to post information regarding where they attend or
attended school, where they are employed, personal interests, and more trivial
information, such as favorite movies and music. College students share
personal information about themselves, including their residence hall room
number, class schedule, and campus involvement (Lenhart and Madden,
2007). Many users share their gender and whether they are in a relationship.
In an unpublished paper about online privacy, Jones and Soltren
(2005), students at MIT, stated that students are not required to provide
information in all sections, although many take the time to complete all portions
of the profile.
The individual creating the profile determines the types of information
shared in it. Although a profile may seem, on the surface, as a way to share
real-world personal information, students may be using it to market their
ideal identities (Rosen, 2007). Students may want to portray their ideal self
as popular, athletic, and attractive. When individuals create blogs about
their life and post pictures of themselves in provocative attire, consuming
alcohol and partying, the lines between reality and fantasy may become
blurred (Barnes, 2006).
The identity users post on the site is what they personally deem important.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project that looked at teen online
activity reported that over 50 percent of teens post some false information in
their online profiles (Lenhart and Madden, 2007). Junco (2007) reported 10
percent of students lie about their age, 7 percent lie about their behaviors,
5 percent report lying about their picture, 3 percent lie about their gender,
and 5 percent lie about their occupation. Mitrano (2006) noted that this
technology “can also be a vehicle for traditional adolescent expression”

Understanding the Ethical Implications

The numerous ways that students can use this technology to share pictures,
ideas, and thoughts and, most important, connect with one another has
been demonstrated throughout this chapter and in other chapters of this
volume. As this technology has become more pervasive on college campuses,
it has also brought to the forefront ethical issues that student affairs
professionals are facing when interacting with students. This topic provokes
numerous questions that need to be answered in order for student affairs
professionals to understand the impact that this technology is having on student
culture and professional practice. Professionals who have a thorough
understanding of this technology and privacy rights are better equipped to
face the ethical issues present and identify strategies for appropriate use.
As student affairs professionals are gaining insight into how students
use social networking sites, the national professional organizations can play
a key role in establishing ethical standards that help define the behaviors
and actions of professionals working in higher education. In order to better
understand this topic, we reviewed the ethical standards of several professional
organizations: American College Personnel Association (ACPA,
2007), National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA,
1990, 2007), Association of Student Judicial Affairs (ASJA, 2007), Association
of College and University Housing Officers–International (ACUHO-I,
2007), and National Orientation Directors Association (NODA, 2007). ASJA
states that ethical standards are established “to maintain and strengthen the
ethical climate and to promote the academic integrity of our institutions.”
ACPA shares that its statement of ethical principles and standards is
designed to “assist student affairs professionals in regulating their own
behavior by sensitizing them to potential ethical problems and by providing
standards useful in daily practice.”
At the time this chapter was being developed, only NODA, ACUHO-I,
and ACPA had established standards that specifically address technology.
NODA states that technology should be used appropriately and as a tool for
furthering the student experience. ACUHO-I states that each professional
and institution be “committed to incorporating technology into the residential
environment for the benefit of residents and staff and identify strategies
to promote appropriate use of technological resources.” ACPA states that
professionals need to know their institution’s guidelines for electronic submission
of information. ACPA was the only organization that addressed the
professional’s ethical responsibility related to privacy rights, calling on professionals
to be knowledgeable about current laws and regulations and how
student information and records are shared. They state that professionals
should stay up-to-date about legislation related to the privacy rights of students,
including online activity.
The ethical standards set by the various professional organizations present
similar information and have common applications and online impact.
Two common themes relate to the issue of privacy and social networking
sites: the pursuit of knowledge and providing strong educational communities
for students. Staying abreast of current issues, research, and student
culture is a key to success in the field(ACPA,2007; ACUHO-I, 2007; ASJA,
2007; NASPA, 1990, 2007; NODA, 2007). Professionals have “an obligation
to continue personal professional growth and to contribute to the development
of the profession by enhancing personal knowledge and skills”
(NASPA, 1990, 2007). In order for professionals to support student learning
and education effectively and create intellectual communities for students,
they need an understanding of the student culture and the means for
communicating (ACPA, 2007; ACUHO-I, 2007; ASJA, 2007; NODA, 2007).
Professionals in student affairs are also called on to serve as role models
and create relationships with students that promote learning and development
(ACPA, NASPA, 1990). This must be done without confusing
students about the role student affairs professionals play and by modeling
ethical behavior (ACPA, NODA). Student affairs professionals using social
networking sites can role-model how to set up an appropriate profile. In
addition, professionals who are knowledgeable about and understand social

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