Privacy in Social Network Sites

Privacy and Identity-relevant Information in Social Network Sites

Privacy Enhancing or Privacy Invasive Technologies?

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On the second day of the conference ‘Privacy in Social Network Sites’, there is a round-table discussion with several scholars, privacy activists and people from the industry about Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) in Social Network Sites.Tavani and Moor (2001) call this the ‘management of privacy’, unlike the ‘concept or privacy’ and the ‘justification of privacy’.  In an earlier blog post, I mentioned that the SNS industry seems to be catching up a little more with privacy, most notably in the announcement of SNS Genome to implement different privacy settings for various types of friends. This separation between social spheres could help user to disseminate information about the books they buy to their bookclub only, and not to their fellow employers.

However, there is a long history of Privacy Enhancing Tools that turned out to be Privacy Invading Tools. I argue that the group of Privacy Enhancing Tools is just a convenient name for all kinds of tools or instruments that supposedly give users better control over their privacy. But such a broad and vague definition does not make it easier to distinguish tools that really empower users from tools that are just proxies for data collection. Many privacy controls on Social Network Sites are presented as giving the user more control over their data, as if this is a great service by the SNS and really helps users get more control.  In reality, users gave all their identity-relevant information away to marketers, and are given a few controls to exercise some authority over the information they just gave up. They have given up most control, and in return, get a little bit back.

If we do not define what the activities exactly are that PETs specifically constrain, talking about Privacy Enhancing Tools does not help  us. To define those activities, the information streams in Social Network Sites need to be clear. If I opt-out of Facebook’s Beacon, my friends will not get information about my buying behavior on Facebook websites. But does Facebook still collect this information? Yes, they do, although they mention they discard it.

If information streams in Social Network Sites stay this unclear, the debate about users’ privacy and privacy controls is moot.


Tavani, H.T. & Moor, J.H., 2001. Privacy protection, control of information, and privacy-enhancing technologies. SIGCAS Comput. Soc., 31(1), 6-11.


Written by davidrip

August 19, 2008 at 9:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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