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

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

January 26, 2012

5 Min Read

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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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Yet, Staddon counters that social media "also leads to huge privacy advantages by facilitating perception, both in terms of understanding of one's online self, particularly as driven by the inputs of others, and self-representation."

Are the benefits of social media huge enough to outweigh the chance of, say, losing custody of one's kids due to some ill-considered Facebook post? The paper avoids making that calculation. It argues that social media can enhance reputation and trust, but the studies cited "offer no judgment on whether social media is good for privacy in any absolute sense."

It would be rather useful to know whether social media is good for privacy in an absolute sense. Alas, the study's main point is that "it is possible to design social media systems that are engaging and supportive of privacy and trust."

For Google, that's good news. It just happens to have a social network. Imagine the problems the company would face were it not possible to design social media systems that are engaging and supportive of privacy and trust.

Still, the data cited to support the linkage between social media and privacy is underwhelming. One of the studies mentioned in the paper deals with vanity searches--searching for one's own name--and concludes that "vanity searches are often closely associated with reputation concern." That's not exactly surprising, but the paper characterizes this as a privacy need. Another way to put it might be that vanity searches expose privacy failures, or publicity.

The second study mentioned in the paper explores how social annotations--Facebook Likes and Google +1s and article popularity ratings--next to news articles affect reader engagement. Four groups with an average of about 95 people in them were asked separately about their interest in sharing news articles, both with and without social annotations. With interest rated on a scale of 1 (least interested in sharing) to 5 (most interested in sharing), the average for articles with Facebook annotations was 2.39. For articles without any annotations, the average was 2.32. And for articles annotated with a popularity ranking, the average was 2.35.

So adding a 'Like' button provides 0.07 points (on average) more interest in sharing than not having a Like button. From this, we get, "social annotations in search support privacy by enabling better self-representation and thus more privacy-aware sharing."

Certainly, social media conveys some benefits. It's a stretch to say that privacy is among them.

Heightened concern that users could inadvertently expose or leak--or purposely steal--an organization's sensitive data has spurred debate over the proper technology and training to protect the crown jewels. An Insider Threat Reality Check, a special retrospective of recent news coverage, takes a look at how organizations are handling the threat--and what users are really up to. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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