Privacy issues related to online social networking sites

To begin exploring issues around using online social spaces for learning and teaching, we sometimes move outside the virtual learning environment (VLE), perhaps to Google Drive, Twitter or Facebook, and in open online courses (such as MOOCs) everything in the VLE might already be public and open to any passing web user.

So it is important to remember that the nature of online social spaces, the size of their memberships and their terms of use have implications for privacy and disclosure. The conclusions to the research byGross and Acquisti (2005), indicate how users of social networking spaces, such as Facebook, provide often highly personal and sensitive information with little concern for privacy risks (page 79).

Even if there were no risk of malicious use of information generated by our personal online profiles, frequently potential employers perform Google searches for applicants - making it a reputation manager as well as a search engine - to obtain information from our online profiles where they can. If you Google yourself you are also likely to see to what extent information may remain available long after it is relevant or accurate. This may be problematic if you no longer have access to change or remove such information. It is also possible to create fake identities in online spaces, making it difficult to verify that people are who they claim to be, and as web use becomes more and more ubiquitous, it becomes increasingly likely that there will be someone else out there with the same name as you.

Many social software applications require registration with a real name and a verifiable email address (though it is quick and easy to set up a free gmail account for these purposes). But before undertaking online activities in the more public online social spaces we all need to consider how much personal information we are prepared to disclose, and to whom: do you want to use a pseudonym as a screen name, to what extent do you want to be identifiable by photograph, geographical location and/or occupation etc? Do you want to maintain separate 'identities' for your work and personal lives? And how will you interact in social networking places with colleagues or students who've given different answers to those questions?


Gross, R. and Acquisti, A. (2005). Information revelation and privacy in online social networks. Proceedings of the 2005 ACM workshop on Privacy in the electronic society. Alexandria, VA, USA, ACM: 71-80.