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CyLab's Alessandro Acquisti & Co-Authors Release 7 Year Study on Evolution of Facebook Privacy and Disclosure

posted by Richard Power
March 12, 2013

CyLab researcher Alessandro Acquisti's world-class work on the privacy implications of social media and other technological developments continues to deliver both sizzle and substance.

In his latest study, Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook, Acquisti, an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University's John Heinz III College, together with Heinz College co-authors Ralph Gross and Fred Stutzman, focuses on "the tension between privacy choices as expressions of individual subjective preferences, and the role of the environment in shaping those choices."

"In this manuscript," the authors explain, "we use prole data from a longitudinal panel of 5,076 Facebook users to understand how their privacy and disclosure behavior changed between 2005, the early days of the network, and 2011. Our analysis highlights three contrasting trends. First, over time Facebook users in our dataset exhibited increasingly privacy-seeking behavior, progressively decreasing the amount of personal data shared publicly with unconnected proles in the same network. However, and second, changes implemented by Facebook near the end of the period of time under our observation arrested or in some cases inverted that trend. Third, the amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users revealed privately to other connected proles actually increased over time and because of that, so did disclosures to "silent listeners" on the network: Facebook itself, third-party apps, and (indirectly) advertisers."

In reflecting on the implications of the seven year study, Acquisti, Gross and Stutzman conclude:

"As our analysis revealed, a robust trend of declining public disclosure emerged over the years across a broad range of Facebook prole elements including personal, contact, and interest information. We also observed a signicant shift for many of these prole elements between the years 2009 and 2010, when public disclosure increased. We concluded that changes to privacy policy and interface settings by Facebook produced greater public disclosures. In other words, exogenous changes eected by Facebook near the end of the period of time under our observation arrested or inverted an endogenous, user-driven trend of members trying to protect their privacy by managing the public disclosure of their personal information.

On the other hand, we also observed that, over time, the amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users have revealed to friends' proles seems to have markedly increased and thus, so have disclosures to Facebook itself, third-party apps, and (indirectly) advertisers. Such ndings highlight the challenges users of social network sites face when trying to manage online privacy, and the power of providers of social media services to aect individuals' disclosure and privacy behavior through interfaces and default settings."

 Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook, Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality (4, Number 2, 2012).

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