Social Networking and Online Privacy: Facebook Users' Perceptions

Article excerpt


This study investigates Facebook users' perceptions of online privacy, exploring their awareness of privacy issues and how their behaviour is influenced by this awareness, as well as the role of trust in an online social networking environment. A cross-sectional survey design is used. The sample frame is a network of Facebook friends; 285 survey responses were collected giving a response rate of 47.5 per cent. The study reveals over half of Facebook users have a high level of privacy awareness; however, an element of uncertainty is evident. Privacy concerns are prevalent especially relating to third parties' access to Facebook users' information. Over three-quarters of users have changed their privacy settings to tighter controls, prompted largely by privacy concerns. The most active period for change to privacy settings was 2010, reflecting a response to the controversy surrounding Facebook's privacy approach. Only one-quarter of users trust Facebook, yet the majority of users believe both Facebook and users have an equal obligation to protect users' information.

Key Words: privacy; trust; social networking; Facebook


The social networking phenomenon is consuming the lives of millions of users around the world. Since the inception of the first social networking site, in 1997 (Boyd and Ellison, 2008), the social networking craze has grown beyond all expectations. Nielsen (2009) reports two-thirds of internet users are using social networking and Hogging sites. The rate of adoption of social networking sites continues to grow as individuals search to become part of a virtual community, to share opinions and to connect and socialise with people of similar interests (Chaffey et al., 2009). Social networking users appear to be comfortable living a part of their lives openly and freely through online networks, often oblivious to the risks (Rosenblum, 2007). While privacy risks tend to be underplayed on social networking sites, the reality is the public sphere that is the internet means millions of users around the world are interacting and socialising in an extremely open and public environment. Unless protective controls are actively used social networking users risk losing control over their personal information, which subsequently erodes online privacy. Leading social networking site Facebook recently reached a milestone of 500 million users (Wortham, 2010). Since the website became a public access model in 2006 the growth of the website has been extraordinary: Facebook has developed and commercialised rapidly, introducing new features and services for Facebook users. However the continued development has come at a price to the user: a loss to their privacy. Facebook users continue to exhibit growing concern regarding lapses in privacy on the online social network. The concern reached its peak in December 2009 when Facebook, by default, made all users' information publicly available (Rothery, 2010). The controversy surrounding Facebook' s continued lapses in privacy has been in the media spotlight in recent months and the topic of privacy on social networking sites has become a worldwide debate. This study examines Facebook users' perceptions of online privacy in a social networking context. Facebook users' current awareness of privacy issues and the influence of this awareness on behaviour are closely examined. Privacy is strongly related to trust. Once Facebook users' privacy perceptions are established trust levels on Facebook are also assessed.

The paper begins with an overview of the current body of literature assessing the concepts of trust and privacy in an offline, online and social networking environment. Leading social networking site Facebook is then closely examined in terms of its business evolution and subsequently the change in its attitudes towards privacy. The literature is followed by a breakdown of the methodology employed for this research study. …