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As a programmer, my initial instincts here are to just make a post that says “Hello, World!” Clearly that won’t do.  So this post is about privacy.  Specifically about privacy on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.  Facebook is an absurdly popular social networking site (Like you diddn’t know that.)  Twitter is a microblogging tool that lets people broadcast their every thought. (More novelty!

Facebook is often the butt of jokes about privacy, and rightfully so.  I know a number of people personally who avoid Facebook like the plague because of it’s glaring privacy issues.  I know others who adopt a false identity of Facebook in an attempt to use it without exposing themselves.  I even know one person who made a profile for his dog, but has absolutely no mention of himself on it anywhere.  While odd behavior by users is par for the course on the internet, the commonality of such phenomena speaks loudly about how people feel about their personal information being displayed on the web for all to see.  Personally, I’m not a privacy freak, but even I have to admit that the difficulty in hiding things you post is discouraging.  Even more discouraging is that it’s gotten worse over time.  In 2005, the default settings made everything about you invisible to people that weren’t in one of your networks.  Now, in 2011, the default settings make available to the entire internet everying except your photos and wall posts[1].  Facebook would defend this by saying something to the tune of “You can change your privacy settings!” or “That’s what most of our userbase wants!”  The problem with these arguments is a) the privacy setting on Facebook are quite difficult to understand, and b) most of the userbase is unaware of the pivacy issues at hand.  I recently made some changes to the visibility of certain aspects of my Facebook profile, and not only did it take me substantially longer than I anticipated, but I had to actually look things up multiple times.   I’m not one for Interface design, but it’s obvious that the privacy settings for Facebook are either very poorly designed, or deliberately obfuscated.  A number of regular Facebook users that I’ve spoken to were unaware of the issues caused by Facebook’s bad privacy, and were quite disturbed when I told them that jobs have been lost and lives ruined because a user neglected to change their Facebook privacy settings.  Some diddn’t even know the settings existed, and just assumed that things would be kept private.  Fortunately, the privacy holes on Facebook have been starting to get some publicity lately, so the informed userbase will probably grow.  In short, Facebook is a rather poor example of user privacy in social networking.

The next technology I’ll examine is Twitter.  I’ve always thought the concept is pretty cool, and I use it from time to time when I have a short though I wish to share with the world.  And, with Twitter’s default settings they will be.  By default, all tweets are visible to anyone.  This differs from Facebook’s tell-all policy because of it’s context.  Facebook is where you post a ton of personal information, usually with the intention of communicating with friends, and managing your social circle.  Twitter is for sharing thoughts and messages.  Some people use Twitter for communication, but it would be absurd to name that as it’s primary function [2].  Twitter has not been free of privacy breaches, however.  In 2009, Twitter freely gave a user’s personal information to a company.  The reason?  That user has registered the company’s name as her username [3].  There was no process of resolving the “dispute,” the information was just handed over.  The implications of this are concerning.  For instance, if I were to register a Twitter tag of “hoylemd”, and a company with that name desired that handle, would they simply be given my personal information?  In the 2 years since the incident, Twitter may have stepped up their privacy policies, but there’s no obvious evidence to support that.  This brings up another issue about twitter, however: usernames.  There doesnt appear to be any process to confirm that a username for a company or celebrity is actually from them.  Twitter has become popular enough that most public figures already have a Twitter account, but it doesnt seem impossible to impersonate someone via twitter if you pre-empt them.  At the end of the day, Twitter is not exactly a repository of sensitive personal information like Facebook tends to be, but it’s not free of privacy issues, and users should take a look at the account options to customize how private the things they tweet are.

Reddit isn’t as well known as Twitter and Facebook, but in the past year it’s seen a substantial rise in usership.  A reddit[4] is a sort of forum, where threads are usually based around a link.  Users may then comment on the link, or other comments on the link, and there is a built-in voting system known as upvotes and downvotes.  A user upvotes a story or thread if they like it, and downvote it if they do not.  Frequently upvoted threads will be shown higher on a list of threads, and downvoted ones lower. This results in a very good user-sorted news repository.  Reddit consists of thousands of “subreddits”, each about a particular topic.  It also has a very tight-knit, mostly anonymous community.  Usernames are registered, and that’s that.  The ease of registration has even resulted in “throwaway” or “novelty” accounts that people use for jokes, or to discuss something anonymous from their usual handle.  The total lack of personal information would imply that privacy isn’t much of an issue on reddit, but this is not the case.  Being an anonymous social site, Reddit is not free of internet bullying.  In most cases, the internet bullies see themselves as sort of “crusaders,” punishing the wicked for their online crimes.  Someone is found attempting a scam, or posting a false “AMA”[5].  “White Knights” use their considerable detecive skills in tracking down the culprit, and post their personal information on the website, inviting other users to “pwn” them, or prank them.  It rarely goes past prank calls, or pizzas ordered to their homes, but there have been cases where serious harrassment is committed.  The moderators of Reddit recently made a blog post condemning the practice and promising harsh punishment[6], but it will probably never go away.  Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid this type of privacy problem: Don’t be a troll.

At the end of the day, the only way to truely avoid privacy issues on the internet is to abstain entirely from it.  In this increasingly online age, that’s becoming less and less of a feasible option, however.  The optimal solution, like many other issues involving risk, is education.  People need to know what happens when they post something on the internet.  They need to be informed of how they can protect their information from falling into the wrong hands.  Companies who run these websites really need to consider user privacy as well, and make it a priority, as well as making personal privacy control more user-friendly.  It’s an increasingly important issue on the web, and it won’t stay obscure for long.  So remember to educate yourself, and adjust your settings so Big Brother doesn’t know what you don’t want him to know.



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