The Illusion of Privacy in a Public Space

online privacy

While we all are vaguely aware of the risks that can occur when we post personal information to social media sites, we still do it. Unfortunately, many of us fall prey to the“Privacy Paradox” that occurs when we are not aware of the public nature of the internet. Oftentimes this is because we believe in the illusion of boundaries, and that these sites will protect us.

Yet, posting to social network sites not only concerns privacy, but can have legal consequences as well. In Boyd and Ellison’s article “Social Networking Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship” they state “The legality of this hinges on users’ expectation of privacy and whether or not Facebook profiles are considered public or private” (p.222). In other words, the uncertain boundaries between whats public and private on social networking sites are forcing us to challenge the legal conception of privacy.

To illustrate, in Wausau Wisconsin, DC Everest High School suspended a group of students from their sports seasons after photos of the students drinking from red solo cups surfaced on Facebook. While school officials couldn’t prove the teens had been drinking, they believed the correlation between the iconic red cups and a beer bash was enough grounds for suspension. As a way “to kind of make fun of the school”, the teens decided to throw a root-beer kegger.

Once the party was in full swing, its no surprise that a noise complaint was called in to the police. At first glance, it looked like an underage party with mobs of teenagers, booming music, drinking games and of course-red solo cups. However, when the cops came to bust what they believed to be a group of underage drinkers, not a drop of alcohol was to be found. Instead, they found a quarter keg containing 1919 Classic American Draft Root Beer. Infuriated, they breathalized nearly 90 teens and every single one blew a 0.0%. As a result, the students were able to prove their point that you can have a party and drink non-alcoholic beverages from red cups.

Needless to say, the story created a buzz and soon made local and national news. Did the school have a right to interject? Or is underage drinking something that should be between students and police? What are our rights concerning online privacy? And how does the law play into all of this?

Stepping away from the light hearted nature of the story above, personal content posted to social media sites can oftentimes have more more serious, threatening ramifications to users. Identify theft, stalking and even murder are all real consequences that can and have occurred. Despite hearing these stories, we continue to make it easy for anyone, including hackers, to access our personal information because it is readily available to anyone with a computer or mobile device.

Consequently, the boundaries between whats public and whats private on social media sites are ambiguous. Even more, “…there often is a disconnect between our desire for privacy and our behaviors” (p.222). So, the real question of how to resolve this issue remains. Would more restrictive settings on these sites help us? Or, as Jonathan Zittrain’s talk suggests, do these sites have a duty to look out for us and minimize potential risks?

While the answers to these questions are uncertain- the need for a more educated and proactive public is. If we are able to fully understand the extent of our actions, perhaps we would take more precautions. Knowledge is the solution to protecting our online privacy and minimizing potential risks. Now it is just up to us to use it.

Posted on September 20, 2015, in Blogs, Social Media, Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I agree that privacy is illusory on the Internet, where it’s possible to find out whatever you want about someone with just a few clicks. I’ve often thought so many people simultaneously overstate the dangers of lack of privacy on the Web without truly understanding what the real risks are. For example, I’ve heard people comment that they won’t post photos of their kids on Facebook because they think someone is going to see their photos and stalk them–maybe even know their names (not sure why that’s such a danger, but I’m told it is). Don’t they realize that you can find out how many kids a person has, as well as their names and ages and your street address, without the help of Facebook? You can probably extrapolate a lot of information, like which school they probably attend, from those few bits of data. You can even look at photos of their house and their car. And that’s for people who don’t post anything at all or participate in any activities or organizations that end up on the Web. In many ways, today, we are all “public figures” rather than private citizens: we have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

  2. Your questions in the 5th paragraph are great! This is the first I’ve heard of this red cup case, but I wonder if it is one that will resonate and teach teenagers to learn more and become that “proactive public” you mention. It does sound like the parties involved knew enough to call attention to themselves and make a point with the rootbeer. Sadly, this generation might only truly understand the issue if it happens to them, but if my group of freshman are any indication, they are pretty savvy with what they post and where, likely because their parents and other family members are infiltrating the social networks that used to be dominated by younger audiences. It all comes down to audience awareness, right?

    I think Laura Gurak’s definition of cyberliteracy [one i should have included in the tech literacy discussion last week] is appropriate here and needs to be reinforced because it is too often that we as Americans might feel we dominate the web. To Gurak, Internet communication is characterized by “speed, reach, anonymity, and interactivity, and, in subsequent discussion, [she] shows how these features conspire to spark changes in language use, attitudes, and behaviors on the part of online users.” So even though we are blogging with this course content in mind and a target audience of 10 people who you will definitely receive comments from, anyone in the world can find it and these words are permanently out there. Sure, it’s focused reading and responding and not blogging in the stereotypical ranting/journaling way, but we are all still reaching audiences beyond our understanding.

  3. When I was in journalism school we were required to take a communication law class. The professor was outstanding and to this day the class remains one of my all time favorites.

    It’s true that expectation of privacy is a critical consideration in social media. I remember a case example from that class involved a woman in picking her nose while at a televised sporting event. The camera panned the fans in the stadium but stopped on her and displayed her not only on the stadium’s big screen but on national TV. She sued the network and won!

    I mention this case because privacy, as you have intimated is a fickle friend. One would think that a person in a public arena had little or no expectation of privacy. The judge in the case acknowledged that had the camera kept panning they the network would have been fine. People who attend sporting events know that a camera pans the stadium. However, the judge ruled the plaintiff’s expectation for privacy was violated because she did not expect the came to rest on her. What I find interesting is that most likely she would not have had her privacy expectations violated had she just been sitting there, her fingers keeping to themselves. Fickle privacy.

    Maryvanbe may have nailed it by identifying social media users as public figures. Public figures do not have the same expectation of privacy defense as non-public figures simply because the they have chosen to put themselves in the public view. The question remains whether posting say a picture of yourself to your Facebook friends holds an expectation of privacy. Most of us are aware that friends can share the content we post.

    If I were a judge, you would have a difficult time convincing me that you had an expectation of privacy when you tweeted that picture of yourself. On the other hand, Facebook wouldn’t stand a chance in my court if they distributed user content without explicit consent. If you learn anything from this comment, I hope its how little I know about communication law!

  4. After reading your post, one of the things I began to think was when would they start educating students in high school / grade school on the use of social media? At the alarming rate that children seem to adapt to social media networks, it is interesting that this hasn’t yet reached into our education curriculum – especially when it comes to the point of our personal safety and protection of our personal information. Because you are right – what is now considered personal information?

    In my current organization, we are working to educate our employees on cyber security awareness. In fact recognizing cyber security as a threat to the U.S., President Obama enact October as National Cyber Security Awareness month, which according to the Department of Homeland Security was designed to education and engage individuals around the increasing trend on cyber security.

    I do think that you’re right on the one had you addressed a question about the public view and people being held accountable for what might be portrayed on their social media sites. In fact, I was at a conference with a young college girl. She had stepped away from a meeting, visibly distraught and I asked her what was wrong. She was mortified that her dad had made a potentially unnerving remark on her profile page. After reading what her father wrote, it honestly sounded like a “dad” comment, but she was very concerned about her online image because potential employers could see this. It really makes you take a step back and look at your profiles from both an image and security perspective and think, wow, I wish I might have done that a little differently…

  5. While it may seem ridiculous, I love the case of the woman spotted picking her nose at a sporting event! I can’t believe that she won her case against the network… After hearing that story, communication law is definitely something I would like to dig into more.

    You do bring up a good point about celebrities and other public figures who expected to give up a certain rights because they have chosen to be in public view. In theory, if we are all posting to the same platforms with the potential for the same audiences to view our content, should we all have to give up the same rights?

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