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Friday, July 15, 2011

Boundaries are the Privacy Control

Separate public and private personas are frequently constructed by members of our society. They party, tell crass jokes or participate in other behaviors a potential employer may find offensive, but they do not advertise those behaviors at work. A small circle of people know about these activities, but are not connected to the public persona, do not care about the behavior, or participate in the behavior as well. Boundaries about who knows about these behaviors are set to maintain and build privacy. People do not normally advertise the private part of their life. People recovering from hangovers usually do not post pictures of drunken stunts on break room bulletin boards, place them on billboards, or as advertisements in the local newspaper. The separation of private and public has grown muddled and it is imperative to set clear boundaries to prevent sharing private activities in a wider context than desired.

Traditional forms of communication such as by phone or in person are falling to the wayside as people begin to tell about private activities on social networks with unseen, unperceived, and uninvited guests present. Those unknown guests are the social network itself and everyone participating in the social network. People from different spheres of life, both public and private, are connected together through social networks. Postings about a wild drinking binge from the other night do not go just to the friends who find it humorous. Though the person posting considers the post a private conversation between friends it can easily be seen by many people. This can potentially expose embarrassing behavior to an employer and bring about negative consequences. The revealing of something private about a social networking user may cause them to feel their right to privacy has been violated. On the contrary, the right to privacy has not been violated; the information was made readily accessible to many people via the social network.

An employer researching a potential employee on a social network is not violating a right to privacy as some workers may argue. These workers argue for a wall separating the personal and work worlds. This wall would keep consequences stemming from activities in the personal part of life from occurring in the work world. A breach of privacy does not occur in this case but a failure to set boundaries around offensive behavior and the forum that offensive behavior is discussed in. The door is opened to make the information public and available to employers when posted on the internet.

Blaine reinforces this, speaking directly to the need for awareness of how people can misuse information posted online. Considering how "friends" may represent a potential employee’s social life, as seen on a social network, to an employer (Blaine 4) becomes a necessary forethought before posting on the internet. Edelstein makes a different and similarly persuasive position promoting awareness about who can access an individual’s social networking pages. Patrons of social networks must cautiously set boundaries around what they discuss online as some college students are being asked to spy on classmates by employers. Easy data accessibility makes it problematic to “tell all” on the internet (Edelstein 352).

Both of these examples speak to a deeper principle about sharing things with other people. Once information passes to someone new they have the ability to do with it as they please. Postings on the internet are more than a personal recollection of a conversation, they are reproducible making them more persuasive and potentially damaging if they are found offensive by an employer. Who is told, how they are told, and what they are told determine the amount of privacy created. The power to maintain privacy lies with the person who sets the boundary and not through telling people to ignore information after it is made accessible for them to read.

Controlling access to data dictates a positive obligation to set boundaries in order to generate the privacy a person needs or desires. Users of networking sites should not expect an invisible barrier of privacy to be present. Intending a post for a particular trusted friend does not create privacy. The need to set boundaries in order to maintain privacy is obvious in other parts of life, but society does not fully understand the impact of this when it comes to social networking. Social networking sets an expectation of friendship, but instead of talking just to a friend, the network broadcasts that information to all of the friends, including people that will possibly misunderstand or misuse the information posted.

Looking at how a spy communicates sensitive data serves as a good illustration of the relationship between setting boundaries and privacy. It is reasonable to accept that a message sent to a spy would be encrypted or self-destruct after ten seconds because of the need to keep that information secret or private from the bad guys. The spy sets boundaries around his communications to maintain his privacy and only then keeps the information private he wants private. When a person posts something on a social network, he has written down the message in a format that does not self destruct. Unlike a book or a piece of paper, something posted on the internet becomes location agnostic for reading and easier accessibility to a spouse, employer, or anyone else.

Arguing that social networks should be accessible by employers, Blaine notes a common historical practice employers used was to present a prospective employee with a social situation for them to deal with. This practice allowed an employer to learn about the prospective employee in a way the formal reviewing of a candidate could not provide (Blaine 5). Edelstein also alludes to employers seeking information outside of the formal application or resume through background checks (351). These two practices provide employers insight into the personality of the potential employee.

Every interaction in society makes or breaks information sharing boundaries, be it a resume, social networking post or an interview. A prospective employee sets one boundary, but an employer is able to look for another place in which the boundary is lower so they can gain further insight into the employee. The violation of privacy does not exist because the employee has placed the material in public view. The employer only has to undertake the effort to find the information.

An employer finding and using something on a social network to justify negative consequences against a prospective employee demonstrates a failure in setting and maintaining proper boundaries, not a violation of privacy. Users of social networks can make the case to expect privacy, claiming expectations and privacy controls present on social networking sites. However, the moment an individual begins to share thoughts with other people they have to trust in that person to respect the boundaries set to preserve privacy; this trust includes the networking site they share information about their private life on.

Real privacy comes from boundaries being set, by individuals and by society, to regulate what is public and private. The problem with privacy in social networks arises from users forgetting that new boundaries are present. Multiple spheres of people being simultaneously present on a social network can allow for unwanted sharing of activities. Users must also trust the platform of social networking to protect what they share privately with others on the internet. Employers have not changed the way they would view public discussion of offensive behavior. Employers have always been able to ask people that know us what we are like and find out what they will say about us. Everyone must set boundaries about how and with whom they share those private moments of their life if they do not want unintended consequences at work.

Works Cited
Blaine, Erin.  “Should Data Posted on Social-Networking Sites Be ‘Fair Game’ for Employers?” Practical Argument.  Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell.  Boston/NewYork: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 274-279. Print. 1-6. Handout.
Edelstein, Lindsay. “Employers Are Monitoring Social Networking Sites.” The Purposeful Argument: A Practical Guide. Phillips, Harry and Patricia Bostain.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. 351-353