UA students cede privacy online

Francie Johnson

As the first generation to grow up with Internet access, the current college-age crop of millenials has received countless warnings about protecting themselves online. Nothing is private on the Internet, and once something is online, it is there forever.

Even with these warnings in mind, some students still find it hard to imagine just how many strangers have laid eyes on their Facebook profile pictures, how many people have Google-searched their names and how many companies have been quietly collecting information. Some simply choose not to think about it, file that knowledge away in the backs of their minds and continue using the Internet as if it’s a personal space. However, on the Internet, personal space doesn’t exist.

“I think psychologically, you have a sense that when you’re behind a keyboard or behind a screen, it’s not the same thing as standing directly in front of people,” said Dylan McLemore, an instructor of media law in the communication studies department. “But if you have a public account, and you post a photo of you smoking a bong, that’s honestly no different than lighting it up in front of, potentially, everyone in the world.”

(See also “Challenges of defining boundaries of Internet privacies“)

Randall Huffaker, also an instructor in the communication studies department, teaches a social media class every semester. He said although most students realize the permanence of content posted online, they often underestimate just how public their information really is.

“That’s what always shocks me is that they seem to be completely surprised,” Huffaker said. “They’re trusting. Most people are trusting until they realize what is actually going on. They just naturally believe that [their content] is lost on the [web] somewhere, and no one keeps it.”

Although students often use it in the privacy of their homes, the Internet is anything but private. Companies track consumers’ online activity through the use of cookies, small files automatically installed on browsers the first time users visit websites. Websites can use these cookies to gather information about visitors, including how often they visit the website, which pages they visit, their past purchases and more.

Websites commonly use cookies for personalized advertising. If you’ve ever visited a product’s checkout page but decided not to complete your purchase, only to later see an ad for that same product on a different website, you’ve experienced cookies at work. This individualized ad experience is usually harmless, and some even find it convenient, but others consider it an invasion of privacy.

“In some cases [cookies] have been compared to covert recording, the same thing as if you’re filming somebody and what they’re doing on the Internet,” McLemore said. “[Websites] are becoming more open about it. But basically, by continuing to use that site, you’re implying that you consent to them monitoring what you’re doing, not just on that site, but everywhere else you go online.”

Social media sites like Facebook also collect information about users, which they can sell to advertisers and use to tailor custom ad experiences. According to Facebook’s data use policy, Facebook doesn’t give advertisers an individual’s name, contact information or other personally identifiable information. However, almost anything else done on the website is fair game, including pages “liked,” keywords used and “things [they] infer from your use of Facebook.”

Additionally, Facebook often pairs ads with social context, “stories about social action you or your friends have taken.” For example, if users likes a company’s Facebook page, their name and the fact that they liked the page can appear alongside an advertisement for the company.

“Facebook makes it clear that you own your own property, but when you load it to Facebook, you’ve given them consent to do whatever they want with it,” McLemore said. “That’s how, when you go on Facebook, there will be sponsored ads that say ‘Your friends drink Coca Cola. You should too.’ They’re using your likeness to promote something, but you essentially sign away your right to do that when you put it on Facebook.”

In some rare, extreme cases, personal information posted on social media can do a lot more harm than simply determining the ads one sees. There have been cases of fraud in which information obtained from a person’s social media page has been used to trick them into giving out their credit card or social security number.

“[Con artists] get tidbits of information [from your social media profile],” Huffaker said. “They may stalk you online and find out enough personal information so they could call you and say, ‘Hello this is John Smith. I’m from Regions bank. You may have been a target of fraud. We have your birthday as this, your age as this, we just need you to confirm [your credit card number.]’”

(See also “Social media alters student, professor relationships“)

There are, of course, ways to increase online privacy. Most browsers, including Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari, have options for users to reject new cookies and delete any existing ones. Also, through privacy settings on social media accounts, users can limit who has access to their page, as well as which groups of people can see certain types of content.

However, this protection only applies to one’s Facebook page. Anything that friends or followers do on their pages, including sharing content and tagging an individual in posts or photos, happens completely outside the realm of the individual’s own privacy settings. For example, you may post a status on your private page thinking only 500 people can see it, but if one of your friends decides to share it on his or her public page, that status becomes visible to anyone in the world with Internet access.

“You say you only want your friends or a certain subsection of your friends to be able to see your content, but you still can’t control what those friends then do,” McLemore said. “Maybe they share your content by clicking the share button, or maybe they just tell somebody about something you posted that only they were supposed to see. That’s still basically the same as putting it in public. You put it out there and you run the risk of it continuing to run through the network to potentially everyone.”

Thanks to Facebook’s graph search feature, any information about an individual that exists on friends’ public profiles can easily be accessed by third parties who have no connection to the individual nor to the person who posted it. For example, if your friend uploads a photo of you and tags you, and that friend’s profile is set to public, anyone who uses the graph search for photos of you will see it.

This lack of online privacy can be especially concerning for college students approaching graduation and applying for jobs. Many companies look up applicants’ social media profiles and perform Google searches when making hiring decisions.

“Red flags include anything that makes an employer question the judgment, integrity and work ethic of the potential hire,” said Mary Lowrey, director of career education and development at the Career Center. “Employers want to avoid hiring mistakes, and they may be easily deterred if they notice what they consider to be a red flag on an applicant’s social media account.”

Huffaker said most companies only spend a minimal amount of time searching for applicants online, and by simply setting their social media profiles to private, students can prevent most companies from seeing their content. However, depending on the industry, some companies dig deeper.

Additionally, while posts and pictures featuring alcohol or drug usage, profanity, discriminatory views and other potential character flaws may hurt an applicant’s chances of being hired, Huffaker said it usually takes a lot more than a couple red solo cup pictures to become disqualified from a position.

“What they’re really looking for is the extremes,” Huffaker said. “If you had a bad night, that’s no big deal. But it would be wise to keep your pages as private as possible and be mindful of your friends. Everybody has that time in their life where they [party], and [employers] understand that, as long as it looks like good-natured fun. It’s all about moderation.”

Social media expectations differ across career fields, and each company has a different policy for how it handles applicants’ social media pages. Lowrey said simply knowing these policies provides a major advantage in the job search.

“[Students should] research how employers use social media in the hiring process,” Lowrey said. “There is a lot of information available with do’s and don’ts for particular industries and in general. Practices evolve as social media platforms grow, so stay current on trends in your field of interest.”

At the end of the day, as long as students use common sense on social media, their accounts shouldn’t affect their job search, Huffaker said.

“It’s all about moderation and figuring out how to control your space online,” Huffaker said. “Because it is your space. But imagine if you were out front Reese Phifer and everybody’s walking by. What would you do in public? Would you light up a joint? Would you take a sip of beer? You don’t want to do that stuff on social media [either].”

(See also “Alabama students get branded“)