If Only Irony had a Privacy Setting

By: Jeffrey Evans | September 7, 2010 (Featured on The Huffington Post)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is worried about his privacy. You may want to re-read that sentence to be sure it didn’t say “isn’t worried.” It would certainly make a lot more sense if the face of Facebook said he wasn’t concerned about privacy, but just the opposite is happening. Zuckerberg says intimate details of his life are primed to be leaked to the world and has directed his legal team not to let that happen. Zuckerberg is fighting a lawsuit from Paul Ceglia, who in pursuit of his claim to an ownership stake in Facebook, is demanding access to some of Zuckerberg’s personal files. http://bit.ly/djjWOn

Of course, in light of how Facebook’s privacy policy affects its estimated 500 million users, Zuckerberg being worried about his privacy is a bit like Simon Cowell complaining about the critics bashing his new show… or Barry Bonds calling Roger Clemens a cheater… or the producers of Lost saying the Sopranos ended poorly. Facebook is the very company that decided to change its privacy setting earlier this year, making public what had once been private. Now, it would truly be ironic if the courts told the Facebook founder that his personal files were once protected, but not anymore… whoops, sorry!!!

Not yet sure how this affects you? Well, let me introduce you to Kimberly Swann, an entry-level staffer at a marketing company in England. Ms. Swann was just 16 when she got fired after posting a Facebook status update complaining to her “friends” that her job was boring. How many times have you described your job in less than flattering terms to friends?

When I tell people of the privacy risks to the average social media user, I often encounter skepticism. People don’t think they need to worry because they are not posting any compromising information on themselves to their own Facebook or MySpace profiles. They are missing the point. If you post it online it will live indefinitely and can easily be taken out of context and used against you.

Let me tell you the story of Stacy Snyder. In 2006, Snyder was a 25-year-old student working toward her teaching degree. She went to a costume party one night dressed as a pirate and someone took a picture of her holding a plastic cup. We have no idea what was in the cup, but the picture was posted on MySpace with the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” – http://bit.ly/abfj13

When a link to this photo hit the inbox in the front office of Millersville University, the school’s leadership kicked Ms. Snyder out of school and refused to grant her a diploma, saying she was promoting underage drinking. We have one less teacher in America because of a photo taken of a 25-year-old woman in a pirate’s hat. Ms. Snyder had not violated any law. It is impossible to judge from the photo if she had even been drinking alcohol, let alone if she was intoxicated when the photo was taken, and she certainly had not posted anything compromising about herself that justified the action her school took against her. She had simply gone to a friend’s costume party. Social media and snap judgments did the rest.

This doesn’t only happen to teens and young adults. Dr. June Talvitie-Siple was a teacher for more than 30 years in Cohasset school district outside of Boston. She supervised the science and math programs at the school. One day, Dr. Talvitie-Siple was frustrated at some local parents and updated her Facebook status to indicate she was sick of “arrogant and snobby” parents in Cohasset. She did not realize her Facebook privacy setting allowed her status updates to be made public. She thought Facebook would keep her comments private, shared only with her friends. She thought Facebook’s default setting was “safe.”

She was wrong, and it cost her her job.

Recent surveys indicate that seventy-five percent of Human Resource professionals use online searches to vet applicants. Eight percent of US companies fired an employee in 2009 because of their social media activity. According to Careerbuilder, forty-five percent of companies did social network searches when making hiring decisions in 2009. When hiring and firing decisions hinge in any way on status updates and third-party social media sources like the caption of a photograph, it should give pause to anyone who thinks that they are squeaky clean enough not to dig deeper than default social media settings to secure their own digital privacy.

We need to insist on impermanence — settings that allow messages and postings to disappear after a prescribed amount of time, whether that be hours, days or months. What I say and is said about me on Facebook and other social media sites needs to be confined to my network, not available to anyone interested enough to type my name into a search engine.

If only Marc Zuckerberg would devote the same energy to protecting the rights of his 500 million users that he is expending to protect his own privacy.