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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google Study: Social Media Enhances Privacy

Sharing can shape your reputation, thereby building trust and privacy, Google research says. "Clean coal," meet "privacy-aware sharing." Let the oxymoron wars begin.

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In the wake of Google's decisions to condense its privacy policies and correlate user information across its services, as well as to automatically establish Google+ accounts for people who sign up for Google Accounts, a Google research scientist has chosen what appears to be an opportune time to argue that social networks enhance privacy.

In a paper titled "Vanity or Privacy? Social Media as a Facilitator of Privacy and Trust," to be presented next month at the 2012 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, or (2012 CSCW), Google researcher Jessica Staddon contends that social media facilitates trust and engagement by promoting self-representation and by reflecting community views.

"[W]e present survey evidence that 'vanity' searches are associated with an important privacy need," Staddon writes. "We also present evidence compatible with the conjecture that social annotations in search support privacy by enabling better self-representation and thus more privacy-aware sharing."

"Clean coal," meet "privacy-aware sharing." Let the oxymoron wars begin.

[ Google's effort to promote Google+ appears to be paying off. Read Google Revenue Misses, But Google+ Surges. ]

In order to not reject Staddon's argument outright, let's define privacy in the way Google search defines it:

1. The state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people.
2. The state of being free from public attention.

Using this definition of privacy offered by Google search, social media just doesn't work. You can have sharing or you can have privacy. You can't have both.

But of course you can't run a social network or social search engine under this regime. That's why the privacy policies of leading Internet companies describe not efforts to safeguard information, but the conditions under which information is shared. Were privacy policies renamed "virginity policies," they'd describe the conditions under which children are begotten rather than practices that preserve chastity.

One company has recognized the absurdity of titling documents that describe information usage "privacy policies." Facebook no longer has a privacy policy. It now has a data use policy, a name that actually reflects the purpose of the policy.

Staddon did not immediately respond to an email seeking a definition of the term "privacy" as the word applies to her study. But let it suffice to say that "privacy" is a tricky word to define. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, "The term 'privacy' is used frequently in ordinary language as well as in philosophical, political, and legal discussions, yet there is no single definition or analysis or meaning of the term." (As long as you don't type "define:privacy" into Google.)

Staddon's paper concedes that social media can pose privacy problems."The abundance of communication that social media enables clearly can lead to privacy problems, often with severe personal consequences," the paper says. "Jobs have been lost, marriages ended, and court cases won all because of unintended sharing of online social communication."

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User Rank: Ninja
1/30/2012 | 5:25:22 AM
re: Google Study: Social Media Enhances Privacy
Sounds somewhat counterintuitive to say social media enhances privacy, but the idea that it can be used to build trust I think is valid.
Brian Prince, InformationWeek/Dark Reading Comment Moderator
Deb Donston-Miller
Deb Donston-Miller,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/30/2012 | 10:35:26 AM
re: Google Study: Social Media Enhances Privacy
It does sound like she is talking more about protecting reputation than privacy, which I think are two different things.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard
BPM For Real
BPM For Real,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/9/2012 | 4:15:21 PM
re: Google Study: Social Media Enhances Privacy
The article goes into great detail on why social media enhances privacy but the best part is how Facebook ended its 'privacy policy' and instead has a 'data use' policy. It is about how data is used.

Social media absolutely allows for privacy for those who choose. I use Facebook, and I may expose some things to the public but I have the ability to turn this off as well. I can choose which of my friends see/know things about me. Compared to where we were a few years ago, this is much more private than public websites, blogs, and forums. Far more.

Social media has gotten a bad rap on privacy primarily because people haven't managed it very well. There are those that shout things they should't share and those who allow anyone to see their whispered thoughts. Two extremes, both complained about as "loss of privacy." Much of this we bring on ourselves.

At work I use a tool that allows me to log in, decide who and what subjects to follow, allows me to create private subjects and to invite only the people I choose, etc. It is more private that having a meeting in a conference room that others can see on my calendar or through the glass. It is the most private thing I know other than the thoughts in my head and it is entirely social. It is my choice.

While privacy and social may seem polar opposite words, they aren't. It all depends on how the data is used.
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