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Privacy Concerns With an Exanding Network

Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704912004575252723109845974.html

Facebook is a social network that manages connections between hundreds of millions of users and it customizes its connections based on the information given by each member that creates a profile. It gathers data on individual users ranging from their biographic information to their personal interests and goals. Over the past year, Facebook has been implementing a series of aggressive and controversial changes to its platform allowing people in the online network to become more integrated with each other. These changes include the addition of the ‘newsfeed’ feature that allows personal data to become more open, the creation of a complex set of controls to edit page content, and the making of all information public by default. These overhauls have allowed Facebook to enhance its user functionality. By making information more available and collecting data about which of their friends a user most interacts with and which friends a user shares similar interests with, it can not only track a relationship but also track the strength of the relationship. Using this type of data and networking principles such as the strong triadic closure property, it has the ability to recommend relevant friends to the user, but not without a provocative breach of the user’s privacy.

The massive database constructed by the users create a mechanism that directly benefits the users and indirectly benefits the companies that treasure personal data, such as marketing companies. Beyond the use of personal data by public and private companies that extract data from Facebook’s database, the world as a whole faces many questions and conflicts about how to properly use public data and about how much of the “private” information Facebook should be allowed to control and disseminate.

The primary ethical issue in question here is whether upgrades made by Facebook are infringing on one’s right to privacy. These decisions have far reaching affects on all stakeholders and an initial analysis may make it seem like a mutually beneficial scenario between the stakeholders, however this is purely illusory. Through these upgrades, users may gain better functionality, marketers may get a hold of large databases of personal information, and shareholders may get an increase in their share value but it is all at the expense of user privacy.

If Facebook wants to act in the best interest of the typical user, the decision that should be made is not as clear cut. There is a tradeoff between user functionality and invasion of privacy. By allowing more information to be public, it allows users to search for other users with similar interests and make connections at a level that was never before possible. On a basic level, they are essentially making it easier for users to connect with friends, family, classmates, colleagues and even people who share the same interests in almost anything. It can even allow to users to connect with products and marketers that are specific their interests and passions. It can be argued that this decreased privacy is benefitting the user and society as a whole by establishing many connections between nodes that would have never occurred otherwise. On the other hand, the release of personal information can be very dangerous and an infringement on personal privacy rights. Anyone with access to a computer and the right set of skills can mine data about more than 600 million users which could lead to problems such as identity theft and privacy invasion. If Facebook wishes to make the most ethical decision, it must attempt to balance the delicate tradeoff between privacy and functionality.

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