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Editorial | That Facebook status isn't working

Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2012 07:11


Since Facebook became a publicly traded entity, a certain status update has become quite popular among users. It essentially invokes numerous legal barriers meant to protect citizens from governments seeking to monitor and seize their postings.

While this particular status update has been proven to be a hoax — Facebook’s status as a publicly traded entity does not change the privacy agreements or terms and policies users agreed to when they created their accounts — it brings attention to the increasingly vital issue of who owns content uploaded to social media websites. 

Currently, Facebook collects a mass of information from its users to sell to advertisers, and since its historic initial public offering — and subsequent plummet to the bottom of the stock barrel — Facebook has been aggressively tailoring individual advertisements, controversially aggregating its data on users to show them advertisements outside of Facebook. 

In another attempt to monetize its users, Facebook seems to be pursuing a service known as “Gifts,” with which users can buy presents for their friends. As is universal in online shopping, users would need to upload credit card information that Facebook will keep unless users delete it after the purchase. The data could be used to track shopping habits and personalize ads like fellow online retailer Amazon. 

Facebook has unilaterally denied that it infringes on its users privacy and insists that users own their own data. So while ads are annoying and corporations are scary, the danger of Facebook’s ambiguous privacy policies comes from government. Law enforcement agencies are currently able to access electronic communications, like emails or Facebook messages, without obtaining warrants. 

Currently, Congress is reviewing the remarkably antiquated Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, spurred by Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) proposal of amendments to the bill that would require a warrant to access such information. 

Users of social media of any kind necessarily should be wary of what they upload or post because that information is, as soon as it is submitted, free to be reviewed by any law enforcement agency without any common sense application of due process. Without the sort of reason necessary to bring to a court before a citizen’s privacy is grossly invaded, anyone’s virtual content is free to be accessed by law enforcement. No laws have to have been broken or suspected to have been broken for law enforcement to access online communications.

While there should be some semblance of privacy behind communications that are ostensibly private — anything in an inbox, for example — that is not the reality of federal law. Instead, laws made by a congress that could not anticipate the proliferation of online communications today still govern how law enforcement treats the privacy of citizens. Until changes are made that protect user privacy and perhaps even after such changes are made, users should remain cautious and understand that this problem extends beyond the scope of a Facebook status.

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