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When it comes to Internet Law and Privacy, nearly every one of us willingly provides very detailed private information about ourselves on loan applications; medical, dental, and insurance forms; and to friends, clergy and counselors.  In doing so, however, we expect control over:

  1. what information is collected,
  2. how it is collected,
  3. how it is used,
  4. for what purposes,
  5. to whom the information is revealed or shared,
  6. what information is retained in files,
  7. how long the information is kept,
  8. the security of the information while it is being stored to protect against the theft of the information in the system,
  9. continued accuracy of the information in the file, and
  10. our right to review the information and to correct errors in it.  In short, we are willing to share private information under certain circumstances, but we do not want that information to be widely publicized without our permission.  

We expect our communications, whether by phone, e-mail, the Internet, or other means, to be as secure as messages in a sealed envelope. 

Too often we realize this expectation is not being met.

Privacy and Permission

For example, when Facebook introduced the feature “Places” in 2010, the application allows users to use their mobile phones to ”check in” and let friends know where they are and what they are doing.  The “buzz” around this suggests that your friends can join you at restaurants, bars, concerts, and other gathering spots if they are nearby or interested in what you are doing.

The application is similar to “Foursquare” and “Gowalla,” – two other applications that announce where you are — but Facebook’s enormous user base (500 million persons, corporations, & organizations) takes the “location networking” concept to a whole new level.  Based on comments on various websites, however, many users are more fearful of this new feature than excited about it.  Their main concern is the impact on their privacy — and even if they choose not to use the new application, it was installed by default on all users’ pages. That’s a problem since it is difficult to “opt out” of it.

Its fun to let your friends know where you are, but the flip side is that you also announce where you are not – such as not being at home.  If you state online that you are on vacation, Places makes your home vulnerable to break-ins and robbery.  Another user on Facebook’s official blog site wrote: “I’m upset that this was enabled by default — especially for people who are victims of stalking and harassment, it could be potentially dangerous if their location was broadcast to the world. Please change it so that this feature (especially the ability of your friends to indicate your location) is turned off.”

Facebook responds that some of the comments indicate that users may not understand how the Places feature works. The feature won’t reveal users’ locations without their prior approval and users must “check in”.   However, other friends can reveal such information about you and Facebook hasn’t provided an option for users to opt out of the feature entirely.

Thus, three months after Facebook tightened privacy controls in response to criticism about how users’ information was being shared online, the site once again faces uneasiness about privacy.

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