The Facebook privacy conundrum: Desire for more confidentiality grows but so does amount of personal data

Carnegie Mellon Facebook study looked 5,076 members from 2005-2011

A look at the history of a select portion of Facebook users from 2005 thorough 2011 finds a contrast in privacy - on one hand the group sought greater privacy controls but actually disclosed more personal data over time.

A seven year study of 5,076 Facebook members by Carnegie Mellon University Researchers found that from 2005-2009, the social site users displayed more privacy-seeking behavior, progressively decreasing the amount of personal data shared with the public.   But the trend abruptly reversed between 2009 and 2010, when changes implemented by Facebook, including user interface and default setting changes, led to a significant increase in the public sharing of various types of personal information, the Carnegie report found.

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The study, entitled "Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook," also found that over time, the amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users revealed to their Facebook "friends" actually increased. As a result, users ended up increasing their personal disclosures to other entities on the network, sometimes unknowingly, including to "silent listeners" such as Facebook itself, third-party apps and advertisers, the Carnegie report stated.

From the study: "Access to increasingly granular settings (which help individuals determine which profile data other Facebook users get to peruse) may increase members' feeling of control and selectively direct their attention towards the sharing taking place with other members of the network covered under those settings; in turn, perceptions of control over personal data and misdirection of users' attention have been linked in the literature to increases in disclosures of sensitive information to strangers. Social network sites remain in part "imagined" communities, where intended audiences do not necessarily map to actual audiences."

"These findings highlight the tension between privacy choices as expressions of individual subjective preferences, and the role of the network environment in shaping those choices," said CMU Associate Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy Alessandro Acquisti, who co-authored the study with CMU researchers Ralph Gross and Fred Stutzman. "While people try to take control of their personal information, the network keeps changing, affecting their decisions and changing their privacy outcomes."

The researchers also noted that their study group was a panel of Facebook users dominated by undergraduate students, gleaned from one specific Facebook location -- the Carnegie Mellon network and only on those who were members of that network in 2005. "Hence, our results may not extrapolate to more diverse samples of users. However, both survey data and analyses of other Facebook networks are consistent with one of the results presented here: that over time Facebook users have become less likely to share their personal information publicly. Our analysis extends that research by offering evidence that the privacy-seeking behavior started early in the life of the network, and then progressed over several years of Facebook usage until it was partly obstructed by Facebook's policies and interface changes," the researchers stated.

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