Privacy in Social Network Sites

Privacy and Identity-relevant Information in Social Network Sites

Taking a party pic and putting it online: taxonomy for privacy harms in SNS

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Currently, I am writing my research thesis on Privacy in Social Network Sites (SNS). I propose a framework for structuring the analysis of SNS and especially the privacy harms that could occur through the use of users’ information.

Two of the most influential papers in my respect are Daniel Solove’s ‘A Taxonomy of Privacy’ and Jeroen van den Hoven’s ‘Privacy and the Varieties of Moral Wrong-doing in an Information Age’ (need login).

Solove (2006) gives a good classification of the various activities that could harm the privacy of users in the information age. His classification is broader than the privacy torts identified in American law. He distinguishes between Information Collection, Information Processing, Information Dissemination and Invasions.

Also, read Solove’s new book ‘Understanding Privacy’, for his newer work on privacy.

Van den Hoven examines the concept of privacy from a different perspective. I find his work very fundamental. He deals with the specific reasons why we want to restrain access to the information that we disseminate to others. Van den Hoven identifies four reasons to restrain access to this information: information-based harm, informational inequality, informational injustice and moral autonomy and moral identification.

Please check Van den Hoven’s website for new work of his hand.

In my research paper I use the following example to describe how Solove’s taxonomy and Van den Hoven’s moral reasons combined give a very clear analysis of why people feel there privacy is invaded and exactly how they have been harmed. Following Van den Hoven, I’d rather speak of restricting the access to people’s identity-relevant information, a term coined by Van den Hoven and Manders-Huits, see my earlier post. Read the example, from my research paper, below.

The example of the embarrassing photo taken at the disgraceful party is striking.

First, the photo is taken at the party (Solove’s information collection), and not many people would judge this as immoral.
The picture is posted online (Solove’s information processing), and as long as this would happen on a website that allows restricted access in addition to the subject’s consent, this also is not very objectionable.

The problems start when the photo is disseminated (Solove’s information dissemination) to people without the subject’s consent. The picture might be disclosed to persons belonging to a social sphere within which the subject does not want the photo to be disclosed (Van den Hoven’s informational injustice).

Furthermore, by tagging the photo with the subject’s real name, the photo can become the basis for scrutiny by future employers (Van den Hoven’s information-based harm). Because the users cannot unbundle the services from the SNS, he cannot ex ante prevent the dissemination from happening (Van den Hoven’s informational inequality).

Finally, if the photo is disclosed to people that the subject does not know, he does not have the freedom to present his moral self to the people as he wants, as those people already have an image of him (Van den Hoven’s moral autonomy and moral identification).

This example clearly illustrates which activities (Solove’s taxonomy) are harming the user for which reasons (Van den Hoven’s moral reasons). I had the pleasure to conduct interviews with both gentlemen and this has really helped me in understanding the various harmful activities that are happening on SNS and understanding how we could prevent this from happening.


van den Hoven, M.J., 1997. Privacy and the varieties of moral wrong-doing in an information age. ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, 27(3), 33-37.

Solove, D.J., 2006. A Taxonomy of Privacy. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 154(3), 477-560.


Note that, although I say that many people would judge taking a picture at a party as immoral, the Fair Information Practices have a principle ‘purpose specification’, that states that the purpose for which the data is collected should be specified not later than at the time of collection. The use of the information should be limited to that purpose. In other words, the photographer should have notified that subject of his intent to place the picture on a SNS and the subject should have consented to that, according to FIP. But is this a real scenario?


Written by davidrip

August 2, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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