The Times Online reports on the use of Facebook to enforce some of Oxford University’s strict regulations on post-exam celebrations. I have it on good authority that students post pictures of drunken shenanigans on Facebook, some of which fall foul of existing rules. Staff have used those pictures to warn and discipline students. My favourite part of the article is this:

“Alex Hill, 21, a maths and philosophy student, received an e-mail stating that three of her photos provided evidence that she had engaged in “disorderly” conduct. “I don’t know how the proctors got access to it,” the St Hugh’s College student said. “I thought my privacy settings were such that only students could see my pictures.”

There’s the problem, you see? People assume that Facebook’s privacy settings offer some form of security blanket, but they do not. People have already lost their job because of failing to understand that simple fact. There are many problems with thinking that what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook. This line of arguments ignores the very simple truth about information in digital environments; paraphrasing the Replicator Technology Principle, once something has been digitised, copies of it can and will be made. Those drunken pictures are one forward button away from dissemination. Similarly, what is to say that those proctors are not listed as students as well? Interestingly, when I became part of Facebook, it did not assume that I was a member of staff, it assumed I was a student. There is also the assumption that the large list of friends who has access to all your personal details will always behave as “friends”. The problem of course, is that the use of the word “friend” hides the fact that most of those on the list are at best acquaintances. And the last in the chain is Facebook itself. Will they always play nice with the very vast amount of sensitive personal data they hold? Forgive me if I declare scepticism on that.

Seems like the student union is not happy about the development:

“The students are livid that their online world is being gatecrashed. Martin McCluskey, president of Oxford University Student Union, said: “While we do not condone unruly, violent or disorderly behaviour, we believe that the university’s use of private photos from the Facebook site in disciplinary procedures is disgraceful.”

Private photos? Posting pictures in a social network site does not precisely mean the pictures are private. Anyway, I have mentioned before that I have a love/hate relationship with social networking. I think it’s a great idea, but I’m baffled by the liberty with which people treat their personal data. My view of online privacy is quite simple. There isn’t any. Anything that I have ever done and written online is stored somewhere, and it can be traced. Failing to understand that simple fact is asking for trouble.

Update: Seems like this story has legs. There are excellent posts from panGloss and Collected Voices, and lively commentary at The Guardian’s Organ Grinder.



Andrew Ducker · July 17, 2007 at 2:09 am

I believe the technical term is "Information wants to be free."


KSB · July 17, 2007 at 8:17 am

Exactly. It's just that my generation will have to learn this lesson the hard way.


ramiro · July 17, 2007 at 2:39 pm

If I invite people to my house, anyone can pry on my desks without my knowledge, but at least I know who is in my house… Facebook, profits from the semantic components of the Web, everything is intervowen in such an intricate way… people know people, who know people, who are friends with a friend's cousin's cousin's, weaving a terribly tangled (in Emily Finch's words) web… Although the privacy settings tend to be very sophisticated, ultimately I'm responsible for what I decide to publish (drunkenly pictures dressed as a donkey next to a Shrek-themed hen party????)Also, based on an implicit component of "Trust" I don't expect people to start tagging mw without my consent, but you can't do much about it!


Kroy · July 18, 2007 at 3:42 am

From my understanding as a facebook user, we will sometime soon(tm) be able to set multiple tiers of privacy, rights, permissions or however it's worded. Something that will, I think, address the privacy expectations of the naive internet user who has stumbled upon these non-geekfriendly webspaces without pausing to think. Aint WebToo just great?

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