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Issues of Privacy on Facebook

Issues of Privacy on Facebook

Privacy Models

Privacy is a right we have but sometimes forgotten about as we start spending more time on the internet. People know what information they are giving up when they share stuff online with their friends, but what many people don’t realize is that every time you like something, search something or even click on an ad big data corporations are taking that information, running it through algorithms and figuring out your personal characteristics. As this becomes more and more common its starts to beg the question if this is a violation of our privacy or not. The trickiest part about concluding whether this is a direct violation is the fact that privacy could mean something different to different people, and violations differ as well. There are three models of privacy that try and describe what privacy is and what constitutes as a violation, the relational model, ownership model and multi-factor model. These three models all have a separate look on privacy, which all make sense of what privacy is, but the one that can stand only and protect our privacy the best would be the multi-factor model. All together these three models perfectly sum up privacy and how a violation would negatively affect everyone.

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James Rachels and Judith Jarvis Thomson are two philosophers who have shared their ideas on privacy. Rachels believes that privacy is so important to people because “someone may want to keep some aspect of his life or behavior private simply because it would be embarrassing for other people to know about it” (Rachels, 323). This is known as the relational model of privacy because it highlights the importance of privacy and how it shapes relationships. Rachels goes on to explain that “our relationships with other people determine, in large part, how we act toward them and how they behave toward us” (Rachels, 326). For example, if a father’s children were to learn information about him that only his friends from college know it may affect the father-child relationship that was set prior to that information being shared. Thomson has a different look on privacy, she believes that privacy is like your personal property, you have the right to do with it what you want and people cannot snoop through your things or eavesdrop on conversations to try and find out information about you. This take on privacy is known as the ownership model, if people obtain information about you without your knowledge or consent and they share that information with others they are in direct violation of your right to privacy (Rachels, 332). However, in the case of gossip, if the person spreading the gossip “got the information without violating your rights, and they are not violating any confidences in telling what they tell […] she thinks they do not violate your right to privacy” (Rachels, 332).

Neil Richards and Jonathan King are two professors who have written about “some of the legal and ethical principles we should build into [our] future society” (Richards and King, 1) so that the growth of big data companies does not completely eliminate our privacy. The fear at hand is that as big data corporations grow, and as most of our lives involve using the internet, our privacy will no longer exist because of how easy it is to find out information about a person based on their internet activity. Richards and King highlight four main values that privacy should protect, these values are “identity, equality, security and trust” (Richards and King, 2).  A model has been created, and if put in place, will accomplish their “goal of helping to build a digital future in which humans, as well as data, will want to live and thrive” (Richards and King, 3) because the four main values of privacy will be protected.

Michal Kosinski, a professor at Stamford University, worked with other professors on a case study focused on how well Facebook knows its users. The study shows that your “Facebook likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender” (Kosinski et al, 1). Kosinski et al. gathered information from 58,000 volunteers who provided their “Facebook Likes, detailed demographic profiles, and the results of several psychometric tests” (Kosinski et al, 1). After obtaining all this information, they put it through different tests and algorithms that Facebook has used and compared those results to the information they already knew about the person (sex, race, sexual orientation) and to the results of a personality test all volunteers were required to take. The results from the study were astonishing, almost everything Facebook predicted had a 75% accuracy rate or higher (only two categories were lower), and it was established that Facebook only needed around 30 likes to come to these very accurate conclusions. The two categories with the highest accuracy percent were race and gender. “African Americans and Caucasian Americans were correctly classified in 95% of cases, and males and females were correctly classified in 93% of cases” (Kosinski et al, 2). The second highest categories were religious and political views and sexual orientation. “Christians and Muslims were correctly classified in 82% of cases, and similar results were achieved for Democrats and Republicans (85%). Sexual orientation was easier to distinguish among males (88%) than females (75%)” (Kosinski et al, 2). Relationship status and substance abuse came in around 65% and 73% accuracy, a little lower than other result but still very good. When it comes to predicting intelligence there are certain categories that relate to higher intelligence and lower intelligence. If you were to like thunderstorms, science or curly fries you are predicted to have higher intelligence whereas low intelligence is indicated by liking Sephora, Harley Davidson, and Lady Antebellum. Facebook has the ability to know a lot of your characteristics based on what you like within the app, whether you think it’s relevant or not.

Facebook has all this information about its users and most of them aren’t even aware of it. This sparks the question of whether or not this is a violation of our privacy. As mentioned before, privacy means something different to different people, but if we use the three different privacy models we could determine if using our Facebook likes to figure out our personal characteristics is a violation of our privacy. According to Rachels’s relational model of privacy, as long as Facebook does not share the information they have acquired about you to anyone you have a relationship with then there is no violation of your privacy. Collecting data from your account and running it through algorithms to find out what kind of person you are, for the purposes of advertising or personalizing your feed, it’s completely fine because it poses no threat to any of your personal relationships. When looking at the ownership model and the multi-factor model, however, they both qualify this as an invasion of our privacy. Thomson’s ownership model classifies privacy as your own personal privacy, which people need your permission to obtain. Liking a post on Facebook does not give Facebook the right to use that information for their own benefit because you did not explicitly say it was okay for Facebook to use that information. It is unquestionably a violation if people have private accounts. Accounts are set to private so that no one can see their activity without that person’s consent, and that includes Facebook itself. Using Facebook likes information is a direct violation of all four factors of Richard and Kings multi-factor model. Starting with the first factor, identity, Facebook uses your like data to create ads special to you and what you have liked. The problem with that is, for example, you are scrolling through your feed and your friend posts something about gun safety, you like the post because you want to support your friend, not because you agree with the post. Facebook, however, does not know why you liked it and now your timeline may be full of gun safety ads and eventually, you become very adamant about gun safety due to the surrounding ads, not because of your own personal believes. Facebook has just changed your identity without you realizing it. Another way your information obtained by Facebook is used is by big corporations who buy your information and use it to reach out to you personally. These corporations have your sex, race and sexual orientation which they use according to how they see fit, which is a direct violation of the equality factor of the model. Giving different opportunities to different people based on their personal characteristics is unjust and easy to do with the information Facebook now has. Security and trust go hand in hand in this instance, Facebook has all this information about you which means anyone can get ahold of it. This violates your security which ultimately violates your trust with the company.

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I believe the ownership model and multi-factor model do a good job in capturing our concerns about privacy in this case, however, the relational model does not. Facebook using our likes to accurately predict our personal characteristics is a direct violation of our privacy we entrust Facebook to protect. The relational model does not see it as a violation because it has no effect on your personal relationships, but privacy is more than just that. The ownership model and multifactor model both do a good job of capturing out concerns about privacy and how Facebook is violating our right to privacy. The multi-factor model goes more into depth as to how it is a violation and is more straight forward (there’s little up for interpretation), making it the best model for explaining how Facebook should not be able to use our likes for their own use/profit.

The best model for helping people and corporations understand the value of privacy in the age of big data is the multi-factor model. This model is the most effective because it highlights four different aspects of why privacy is important, rather than just one reason like the relational and ownership models do. The relational model does not protect our privacy against big corporations because these corporations are not sharing our personal information with people we know, just using it create ads and opportunities for the consumer based on personal characteristics. The ownership model protects our privacy but could be debated. Some people may say that since you put your information online it’s fair game for any corporations to use, they don’t need your permission because you are basically giving them the information. This is not how everyone sees this model, but since there is that interpretation it discredits the model making it less suited for explaining and protecting our rights.  The four-factor model states four main values that privacy should protect, identity, equality, security and trust (Richards and King, 2).  These factors are specific and if even one of these factors is violated it could prove that a company is violating your privacy altogether. This makes the multi-factor model the best model to help people understand the value of privacy as big data companies start to grow.


  • Kosinski, Michal, et al. Private Traits and Attributes Are Predictable From Digital Records of Human Behavior. University of California, 2013
  • Rachels, James. “Why Privacy Is Important.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 4, no. 4, 1975, pp. 323–333.
  • Richards, Neil M. and King, Jonathan, Big Data and the Future for Privacy (October 19, 2014). Handbook of Research on Digital Transformations (Elgar 2016). Available at SSRN: or

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