Social Media & the Ethics of Privacy

By Devin Morrissey

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As more of the world goes online, the questions of social media and the ethics of privacy become more and more nuanced. The general consensus for a while now has been that if you put photos and statuses out in the public, it can be used for just about anything, so exercise caution when posting online. However, with social media becoming such a huge platform for self-expression, at what point does the use of social media to research a person cross the line?

People are generally encouraged to take their privacy into their own hands by not having public profiles that strangers are allowed to see. However, employers who look into job candidates social media have the potential to be accused of discrimination, as public profiles often contain private information about a person’s religion, marital status, age, gender, and race. Each of these details is protected through Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws.

Whether or not employers are checking job candidates’ social media pages can be a difficult thing to monitor. Still, there are no clear answers for how EEO laws can be regulated when social media is so readily accessible. However, the ethics of privacy stem far beyond how it can affect job hunting — it stems into every part of our day-to-day lives.

Where Should Lines Be Drawn?

Although using social media to gain information about a person may seem like an invasion of privacy, social media posts have been used as evidence against a person on many occasions, as would phone histories. Although this can be beneficial in criminal cases, it can bring into question the extent of how information can and will be used against a person.

Insurance companies, for example, have been guilty of doing this exact thing in order to discredit claims whenever possible, even if the claim is entirely legitimate. They may do this by clicking extensively through a person’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter profiles to seek out photos and posts that may reveal actions or qualities that can discount a person’s experience.

However, this can be seen as an abuse of people’s privacy, as well as of information in general that should not be used to influence the jury. They can use evidence such as photos of a person smiling to accuse them of malingering and argue that their quality of life has not been severely affected and that they should not be compensated for what they are requesting.

Another grey area involves the use of social media in healthcare settings. In professions where a standard of privacy is the law, social media can cause individuals to lose their jobs for actions that had unintended consequences. The ethical standards in medical professions are high, and nurses or doctors who accidentally violate HIPAA laws through the inappropriate use of social media are subject to dismissal.

Although it seems ridiculous that casual posts or photos could be used against a person, everything on social media provides some insight into a person’s life. This information can be used by businesses, healthcare providers, insurance agents, and even employers to form an opinion about a person without meeting them, which can have a serious effect on the playing field, and arguably borders on discrimination.

Personalization vs Surveillance

However, an argument for the use of personal information in business is the potential for personalization that it offers. Most people have accepted that their internet searches are being tracked and even the potential that their conversations may be overheard through the internet of things (IoT) technology. Over the last few years, people have noticed more and more that the ads on their phones and laptops are all based on things that they recently talked about or searched.

Although this can be helpful in personalizing the internet experience to be specific to a person’s interests, some people consider this an invasion of privacy and an abuse of their personal search information. Knowing that their information is being tracked by businesses can make people feel uncomfortable, which can even result in backlash for businesses who participate in this type of targeted marketing.

These types of marketing strategies can prove effective due to putting ads out to people who are most likely to be interested in the product or in making purchases. However, it can reflect poorly on a business when customers feel they’re having their information accessed without their consent or knowledge. Therefore, it’s important for companies to find the line between the personalization of user experience and the surveillance of a person.

The connectivity and information age of social media has become a prevalent part of today’s society. Although there are many benefits to social media, these platforms are dramatically shaping our world in unexpected ways. They are still relatively new, and people remain unsure of where exactly the lines are in regards to respecting people’s privacy. However, people can still take preventative measures to protect their own information and what they openly share.

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