facebook privacy

Facebook, the popular social networking site that serves more than 67 million users, may not be as private as users think. Numerous Facebook account holders, including Phillips Academy students and some teachers and administrators, provide Facebook with seemingly harmless information, such as their names, email addresses and dates of birth. However, Facebook may be sharing some of their user information with third parties. “There’s a concern [among administrators] that students aren’t aware of how public their Facebook accounts are. That information flows everywhere,” said Marlys Edwards, Dean of Students. On November 6, 2007, Facebook announced the launch of Beacon, a program intended to update members of purchases their friends made online at third-party websites, according to a New York Times article. Within a month, 75,000 Facebook members who considered Beacon an invasion of privacy joined a protest group on Facebook. Many had a problem with the opt-out nature of the program, which automatically included a user’s purchase activity until the user changed his or her privacy settings. Facebook responded by altering Beacon several times, until finally making it an opt-in application in late November. On December 5, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to Facebook users for the blunder in a blog post on the website. Although the company has repeatedly attempted to change privacy policies to meet users’ demands, many remain concerned about Facebook’s use of their personal information. David Busis, Teaching Fellow in English and Yale alumnus, said he signed up for Facebook in 2004. Though he finds it to be a convenient way to keep in touch with friends, Busis has developed a negative opinion of the company’s privacy policies. “I would quit if there weren’t a way to opt out of programs like Beacon. I don’t want anybody to see what I’m buying, and it’s not that I’m buying anything unsavory, it’s just none of your business,” Busis said. The difficulty of deleting Facebook profiles is another privacy concern. Facebook saves backup copies of user profiles for “a reasonable period of time,” according to the Facebook Principles, a privacy policy statement. By press time, Facebook did not reply to an email asking to define “a reasonable period of time.” The seeming permanence of users’ profiles can cause headaches for college applicants. Jane Fried, Dean of Admissions, wrote in an email that although the Phillips Academy Admissions Office does not screen prospective students’ Facebook or MySpace accounts, some colleges do. Danielle Early, an Admissions Officer at Harvard, said, “On very rare occasions, we do [check applicants’ Facebook or MySpace profiles.] Suppose you have a student who has been a national-level figure skater. You want to find out: a. if it’s true, and b. how good they really are, so we Google their name.” Although admissions officers are “always looking for reasons to admit the student,” Early said that if an applicant’s Facebook or MySpace profile were found to be inappropriate, the officers would not admit him or her. Misbehavior on Facebook has also gotten students into trouble at Phillips Academy. During Spring Term last year, several Andover High students and Phillips Academy students engaged in what Kyle Rogers ’09 described as “trash-talking” on a public Facebook group. When administrators discovered the exchange, the involved PA students were disciplined, said Rogers, who received a Dean’s Censure for his participation in the group. Rogers said the exchange was harmless. “It was done in a joking manner. Nothing was going to come of it. It was harmless and both I and the Andover High kids knew that. I understand why the school [punished us,] but I don’t agree with the decision,” said Rogers. Many students do not seem bothered by the thought that what they put on Facebook is available to the public. Silke Cummings ’08 said, “Nothing I put up there is very personal, and I’m not afraid of others seeing me. I don’t add strangers, so I don’t have to worry about someone stalking or anything like that.” Although the difficulty of deleting a user profile bothered him, Ben Ho ’11 felt his personal information was secure. “It gives you a feeling of being safe. MySpace is way too open. With Facebook, you give your name and birth date but nothing like your social security number. You get to decide what information you keep private from other users.” Carol Israel, Associate Director of Graham House, said that the need to establish these connections is especially important psychologically among adolescents. She thinks this may partially explain the popularity of the site among PA students. Yet because they are adolescents, students may not fully comprehend the consequences of posting personal information on Facebook, Israel said. “We now know that brain development isn’t finished until early to late 20’s, and the part that is growing the most is frontal cortex — decision making, foreseeing the consequences of one’s actions,” Israel explained. “Teens are more likely to process things in the region of the brain that supports emotion than adults are. It’s not that kids don’t use the frontal cortex, there is just this evidence that maybe the connections between the emotional region and the frontal cortex are a little slower in teens. I don’t think that’s the whole explanation. I think that’s a piece of it.”