The widespread use of web and social media tools has significant philosophical and practical implications for the privacy of casual users, employees, and employers. Philosophically, the diffusion of computer technologies and the new communication mechanisms and relationships the technologies fostered have encouraged a reevaluation of the concept of privacy itself. According to Bynum (2011), definitions of privacy have evolved from those stressing control over personal information to those stressing restricted access to those accounting for public circumstances. These shifting concepts mirror the rise of web and social media platforms that facilitate the production, storage, aggregation, and use of huge volumes of data; in today’s web environment, thousands of entities collect billions of data points in an effort to quantify, categorize, and monetize all aspects of human behavior. From social relationships to shopping habits or work preferences, actors on the web use data mined from searches, browsing histories, and social media interactions to build comprehensive profiles that trigger targeted advertisements or content. When combined with the ubiquitous nature of social networking sites with access-based privacy standards, this shift toward a personalized web experience has certainly facilitated the evolution of ‘privacy’ and indicates current web interactions encourage behaviors that define privacy in terms of access rather than control.
Practically, the web and privacy intersect in several broad areas, including the legal realm, the employment realm, the data collection realm, and the data storage realm. First, current laws do not account for the recent growth in social media and other web technologies and, as such, do not offer adequate privacy protections to system users. Loeffler (2012) explained that social media is governed by the same privacy laws applicable to the general online environment; in the United States, this translates into a patchwork of laws and regulations that address privacy issues for different segments of personal information, consumers, or industries. Several major privacy-related areas within this patchwork, especially the scope of employer surveillance, employee representation requirements, and the depth of pre-employment social media examinations by prospective employers remain unsettled, ensuring confusion and conflicting policies on the collection of data and the conduct of potentially invasive activities by employers. These actions have significant privacy implications, and the law must catch up to the social media environment to offer clarity and structure.
In the employment realm, web and social media technologies pose privacy concerns to prospective employees, current employees, and employers. In general, the boundary-crossing nature of social media platforms, the availability of sensitive personal data in the online environment and the advertising and marketing potential of social media sites have the potential to impact privacy, and in aggregate have contributed to the philosophical reevaluation of what ‘private’ means. Sánchez Abril, Levin, and Del Riego (2012) suggested although employer invasiveness leads to negative personal and professional outcomes among employees, most employers have compelling business reasons and possess the technologies to surveil employees’ and applicants’ online activities. This monitoring can help companies identify character flaws or negative personality traits and protect intellectual and physical property, but it can also result in privacy invasions, the collection of inappropriate data, and the execution of improper hiring, firing, and personnel decisions based on private data. Furthermore, the widespread use of social media platforms has blurred the work-life boundary and inspired companies to place restrictions on extracurricular activities that could harm the company’s reputation. Sánchez Abril, Levin, and Del Riego (2012) indicated this significantly complicates the line between the private individual and the company representative, and explained a more public digital existence can threaten the privacy of both employees and their employers by making it easier for private dealings to reflect on organizations, enabling disgruntled employees to divulge company secrets, and allowing organizations to try and regulate off-duty conduct. With a blurred line between on- and off-duty, previously private employee activities are becoming more relevant to company operations and forcing employees to disclose or even terminate formerly private actions.
Finally, today’s web and social media technology contains items that collect, track, and use sensitive personal data for advertising and other businesses purposes. Cookies and other advanced technologies track online movement and gather data without user knowledge, this data is gathered, stored, and analyzed, and the process minimizes privacy in favor of finely targeted commercial activities. Tracking mechanisms and personalized advertising have made it extremely difficult for users to operate privately on the internet, and anonymity is almost impossible on today’s web. Data-collection applications and web communities such as Facebook that gather personal data and leverage it for targeted advertising have the capability to aggregate massive amounts of information and, in doing so, develop sophisticated personal profiles for millions of users. This process provides these companies and the entities that purchase personal information with data on users’ friends, habits, likes, dislikes, shopping habits, and other personal/private topics. This information was not collated and aggregated to this degree prior to the rise of the web and social media platforms, and the existence of these capabilities and the resulting databases have significant privacy implications for all web users.
As the web evolves and social media platforms mature, internet users will become more familiar with the privacy threats associated with ‘big data,’ and the law will change to reflect the web’s influence. Today, however, the explosion of social media sites, the unclear legal environment, the massive data-collection capabilities of online companies, and the ongoing redefinition of ‘privacy’ have combined to create an environment where traditional concepts of privacy are not sufficient to protect individuals and businesses in the online world. During this transition phase, this has resulted in the existence of serious privacy threats and the rise of a billion-dollar data-collection industry devoted to obtaining personal data and leveraging it for consumer and professional purposes. In the short term, this trend has caused web users to forgo or limit traditional privacy conceptions, and I see this trend continuing as social media grows in popularity and cultural acceptability.
Bynum, T. (Spring 2011) “Computer and Information Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/ethics-computer/
Loeffler, C. (2012, September-October). Privacy issues in social media. IP Litigator, 18(5), 12+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.cuhsl.creighton.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA305371564&v=2.1&u=creight_law&it=r&p=LT&sw=w
Sánchez Abril, P., Levin, A. and Del Riego, A. (2012), Blurred Boundaries: Social Media Privacy and the Twenty-First-Century Employee. American Business Law Journal, 49: 63–124. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-1714.2011.01127.x