Remember the good old days?
Remember when e-mail and instant messaging were considered phenomena, and when a random person could only “stalk” you on either MySpace or Facebook? And when you didn’t have to worry about whether an accidental tweet or inappropriate picture would prevent you from being accepted to an internship, graduate school or job.
There is no question that social networking is and will continue to be beneficial to our social, professional and academic experiences. However, the over-arching concept is inherently creepy.
Take Facebook. Despite its purpose to provide a venue for online social interaction and communication, many people use services like it primarily to virtually observe other people’s lives. However, these issues come with the territory, and the communication potential of these services considerably outweighs the “creepiness” factor.
But what happened to privacy? What happened to being able to control who views your own, personal information?
“One of the core concerns that privacy advocates have with social-networking sites is how they configure their default sharing permissions,” Chris Mustazza, School of Arts and Sciences Technology Advisory Board coordinator, wrote in an e-mail. “It’s generally believed that privacy settings should default to a fairly restrictive state and that the user should loosen these settings as [he or she] sees fit.”
On Feb. 9, Google’s introduction of its new social- networking tool, Google Buzz, reinvigorated this heated debate. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Google’s new product, Google Buzz allows Gmail users to share their Buzz status updates and to “follow” other people. Forgive me for the corny wordplay, but the only buzz that Google created this past week was an information-security scare that added to the growing debate over privacy-flawed social-networking services.
That’s because Google screwed up. The initial Google Buzz interface — yes, Google has already corrected the main Buzz privacy issues — caused your most frequently contacted fellow G-chat or Gmail users to automatically “follow” your blog posts, status updates and Buzz discussions. Users were shocked by the realization that they no longer controlled their personal information when placed in the hands of companies.
Based on past experience, Google should’ve known better. AOL Instant Messenger’s chief privacy flaw is similar to Buzz’s issues. AIM allows anyone to add a user to their buddy list without notifying the person who was added that someone else is now able to view his or her profile and statuses. And guess who solved that issue? Google. Mustazza commended Google Talk for fixing AIM’s issue by preventing users from viewing others’ status updates, profiles and availability without consent.
But Google undid that with Buzz. Mustazza, who teaches a course at Penn called “Privacy in a Networked World,” experienced Buzz privacy concerns first-hand last week, when he opened Google Talk to hold his virtual office hours.
“When I first logged into Buzz, it had automatically added several of my former students to my Buzz page,” Mustazza wrote. “This doesn’t bother me, personally, but you can imagine how it might upset someone who wishes to maintain a strong boundary between personal and professional.”
If this is a business after all, isn’t the customer always right? In Google’s case, the answer is yes. Yes, Google should be applauded for quickly correcting privacy concerns by asking Buzz users to now approve a “follower” request, but that’s not the point.
The main issue is the initial transgression. These information-security issues continue to occur with the launch of every new social-networking service, but they can be avoided. Social-networking services need to be more vigilant about who can view their users’ personal information, because these oversights can dramatically alter people’s lives. Michael Roberts is a College sophomore from New York. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Roberts Rules appears on alternate Tuesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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