Problems with online privacy

With social media apps like Facebook’s Farmville sharing users’ info, is there any way for users to ensure we’re protected?

The most important thing people can do to protect themselves online is set their privacy settings, Queen’s law professor Arthur Cockfield says.
The most important thing people can do to protect themselves online is set their privacy settings, Queen’s law professor Arthur Cockfield says.

Like millions of others, Elysia Maludzinski is an active user of social networking sites, but with exams and final assignments approaching, she decided to pull the plug.

“I took a week off because Facebook was consuming my life and I really needed to study”, said Maludzinski ArtSci ‘13.

This makes her an exception to the trend. According to, approximately 50 per cent of users log in daily, sharing a total of 30 billion pieces of content worldwide every month.

In a growing age of technology, Facebook is becoming nearly ubiquitous with changing notions of privacy. But although Maludzinski acknowledges that social networks can be detrimental to productivity, she said she’s confident with her online privacy.

“I’m not too concerned. I have all my privacy settings set to strong,” she said. “I limit my profile for certain people. There’s definitely things that I wouldn’t like my parents to see.”

Queen’s law professor Arthur Cockfield said students need to be aware that their parents aren’t the only people who might be snooping on their Facebook.

“If in your status update you reveal that you’re not at home, a friend of a friend or a false friend might use that info against you. That’s happened,” he said.

According a Sept. 17 CBS report, police in Nashua, New Hamshire found a team of thieves who had monitored local Facebook networks to locate people who announced vacations via their status updates. Police recovered nearly $200,000 of stolen property from their spree of 50 or so August thefts. A similar experience in Indiana cost a couple over $10,000 worth of electronics after they posted a status announcing they would be visiting a concert in a neighbouring town.

Cockfield said the most important thing a person can do to protect themselves is set the privacy settings on their computer. Cookies, pieces of data stored on your computer by a website, can be used maliciously to track users’ browsing.

“Set the privacy settings to ensure that cookies are deleted,” he said. “A cookie is a bit of data planted on your hard drive by a commercial website and it keeps sending back info to the ‘mothership,’ as I call it, so once you visit a commercial website it starts to track all your other website visits”

Besides limiting cookies, Cockfield said it’s very important to keep tight privacy settings on social networking sites. “Here too consumers must ensure that they don’t share too much of their personal information with members of the public,” he said. “That way for instance you can restrict your profile to only your friends.”

Nonetheless, Cockfield said even those who have strict privacy settings are not necessarily safe because they can be affected by leaks.

An October 2010 investigation by the Wall Street Journal discovered that certain Facebook apps had been ‘leaking’ identifying information to dozens of Internet tracking and advertising companies.

“Even if you make a significant effort to protect your privacy, sometimes you will fall trap to various privacy scandals,” he said. “Certain Facebook apps like Farmville were selling users personal information to direct marketing companies in contravention with Facebook privacy laws.”

Another recent online privacy scandal involves Google, Cockfield said.

“The Google cars were driving around for Google Streetview and it turns out they were also at one point accessing people’s unprotected wireless networks and collecting personal information,” he said.

Online privacy encompasses security concerns of governments, corporations and individuals. In Canada, Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” although this allows for judicial interpretation.

Privacy has become a much discussed topic, as previous privacy laws enacted in the past two decades have struggled to keep up with technology.

According to a Nov. 2010 reference document by the Canadian Privacy Commission (CPC) entitled “A Matter of Trust: Integrating Privacy and Public Safety in the 21st Century.” the Internet has fundamentally shifted cultural notions of privacy.

“As new technologies and social practices emerge and shape our conception of privacy, they can also raise new security concerns, and so that fundamental legal principles become all the more important,” the report says.

In June 2009, the CPC spearheaded a move to increase individual privacy on social networking sites, limiting the ability of outside applications to access parts of a user’s profile. The ruling by the CPC now states that users must grant additional permission before detailed profiles are accessed, but its effectiveness is limited.

Cockfield said the Google and Facebook scandals were not taken lightly by the Canadian government.

“In both cases, Facebook and Google, our federal Privacy Commissioner warned the companies that they were not in compliance with Canadian privacy laws,” he said.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s comments were in response to a 2009 investigation into Facebook’s privacy polices. The investigation included reccomendations for Facebook, which the social networking site agreed to address.

With files from Holly Tousignant

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