Student Awareness of the Privacy Implications When Using Facebook
One of the first things that a new college freshman does upon entering Carnegie Mellon
University (CMU) is create a profile for themselves on Facebook, a popular college social
network. These profiles contain pictures, contact information such as cell phone numbers and
residential location, sexual and political preferences, as well as a list of “friends.” Profiles are
defaulted to be viewable by all Facebook users at your college as well as to “friends” at other
universities. While Facebook is arguably convenient, it does present many privacy concerns.
By conducting a pilot survey of Carnegie Mellon University Facebook users, we investigated
student awareness of these issues and available privacy protection provided by Facebook. We
have found that most students are aware of possible consequences of providing personally
identifiable information to an entire university population, such as identity theft and stalking, but
nevertheless feel comfortable providing it. Despite the overwhelming majority of survey
participants knowing that they are able to limit who views their personal information,
participants did not take the initiative to protect their information.
We will begin our paper by explaining the background of Facebook and the motivations for
our research. Secondly we will examine the research that has been done previously on online
social networks and the Facebook. Next we will explain the method we used to conduct our
survey and the results that we obtained. We will conclude with our evaluation of the results and
possible avenues for future research.
2. Background and Motivation
With the growing popularity of online social networks, more and more personal information
is being displayed on websites. This is despite the fact that privacy groups advise Internet users
not to “reveal personal details to strangers or ‘just-met friends” (McCandlish 2002). Privacy
groups cite social consequences of risky online behavior as harassment, stalking, and spamming
(“Privacy in Cyberspace” 2005). While Internet users may feel safe behind their computers, they
have “zero privacy” (Regan 2003).
Facebook has become a standard part of college life. With over 60% of Carnegie Mellon
students having a profile (Gross 2005), it has become an important source of information about
the student population. Because the information on Facebook is personally identifiable, there is
a risk that the information given by the user could be abused by stalkers or identity thieves
(Whelan 2005). A less severe consequence is that the information posted by a student will be
read by individuals the information was not intended for, like university officials or other family
members (Schweitzer 2005). Information provided by students could be mined and stored for
future reference. While students may not see the information they provide as a threat to their
future at present, if running for a political office or if they are put in the public eye for any reason
the information can be published. Information could potentially be used by future employers or
the government for judgment of character.
While research has been done about the types of information posted on Facebook profiles
and the privacy settings that users use (or don’t use) (Gross 2005), it has yet to be investigated if
users do not protect their information out of ignorance or lack of caring. Our main purpose in
this study is to see the aftereffects of a subject taking our survey. The survey is intended to make
a Facebook user aware of the privacy options available to them and alert them to the possible
harmful consequences of giving out cell phone numbers and personal pictures to strangers. After
they took the survey we looked at their profile to see if the user changed the amount of
information that they provided and/or who they made the information available to. If users did
change their profile then awareness is what is stopping users from changing privacy settings and
giving out personal information. On the other hand, if profiles remained unchanged then it
indicates that users are not concerned with protecting the information that they give out about
3. Related Work
Facebook has become a popular personals site among college students. Among freshmen at
UNC, usage of Facebook is reported to be alarmingly high as measured by profile update
statistics (Stutzman, Notes 2005). In the study done by Gross and Acquisti, it was also concluded
that a wealth of private information including identifying pictures, birthday, high school
attended, interests, and hometown were provided by a majority of users. Unlike other personals
sites, Facebook uses full names and about 89% of names are valid (Gross 2005). In fact,
Facebook allows users to post the most amount of information compared with Myspace and
Friendster (Stutzman, Evaluation 2005). Gross and Acquisti pose questions of whether users
overly trust the site, how peer pressure impacts information that is divulged, and how default
privacy settings impact users’ privacy settings (Gross 2005).
One possible answer to the question of trust comes from an article in The Boston Globe. “The
scope of Facebook’s impact may not be felt for years to come” may be the case according to a
professor at the University of Illinois who states that he would bet that a political candidate will
get questioned about information posted on Facebook (Schweitzer 2005). Interestingly, political
affiliation is a field that can be indicated on Facebook. Political trends and individual political
preferences can be data-mined from the site. Stutzman demonstrates this in a comparison of
political affiliation at UNC (Stutzman, Political 2005). Action has already been taken based on
students’ posts including police intervention due to sexual posts, and family members being
surprised about drug posts. Students post “simple jests” and “thoughts of the moment”
(Schweitzer 2005). This suggests that perhaps users trust Facebook too much. Users on
Facebook can also post a link to a website. The majority of users that post a website post a page
that links to other “photo, blog, or profile hosting” sites (Stutzman, Notes 2005). The Schweitzer
article details on how users’ comfort in the site may be over-sighted, but it leaves open the
question of where the trust is coming from.
An article by Jessica Sidman comments on a different side of the Facebook. The site is much
like other personals sites in that it allows a user to post a profile, search for other people, and add
them as friends. It differs because, according the Facebook spokesperson Chris Hughes, the
groups and social structure on the site model structures that are already present in a physical
sense (Sidman 2005). Because of its popularity, the site received an investment of $13 million by
Accel Partners (Sidman 2005). Hughes goes on to say that the site regularly receives letters
saying that the site has helped users to meet old friends or solidify new significant relationships.
Sidman’s article ends with a question about whether “online interaction helps or hinders personal
interaction” and whether the addiction to Facebook is taking away from other elements of
college and life (Sidman 2005).
Many users befriend other users “even if they are precarious acquaintances or absolute
strangers” (Majmudar 2005) on the Facebook, but not in a non-cyber environment. Since a
number of strangers whom a user categorizes as friends have access to that user’s profile, there
may be privacy concerns. Hughes fields questions of privacy concerns by commenting that all of
the information “has been available inside university systems already” (Majmudar 2005).
However, it was noted in a comparison done at UNC by Stutzman that Facebook prompts users
to enter much more personal and social information than is asked for by the university directory
(Stutzman, Evaluation 2005). The article by Majmudar brings up the point that users have
extensive privacy options. It asks whether Facebook should be considered a privacy concern if it
gives users options (Majmudar 2005). In answer to this question, an article by Bridget Whelan
shares students’ comments saying that the site has an element of “‘creepiness’” (Whelan 2005)
and causes fear of stalking among some students (Whelan 2005). The article notes that Facebook
has popularized stalker like behavior and has become a popular word on college campuses. The
difficulty in resisting “the overwhelming urge to anonymously check up on old high-school
acquaintances” (Whelan 2005) keeps users addicted to the site and open to looking up people
and sharing their information with other users. The article doesn’t conclude whether the site is
merely a fun resource or a privacy invasion, but it gives students’ view points on both sides of
the “Internet craze” (Whelan 2005).
Reasons for Facebook’s popularity as a campus networking tool over other campus
networking tools include the depth of information that is encouraged by the site to be shared,
viewable social networks, course tracking, and the ability to post messages for all users to see
(Agraz 2004). There are also features that integrate into other services like linking an AIM away
message to a user’s profile and viewing a school newspaper article in which a user was featured
(Agraz 2004). Features like these aren’t available for all users, but many users that have them
don’t realize that supplemental information is attached to their profile (Acquisti 2005). Where to
draw the line between a useful feature and an invasive feature is what researches grapple over.
A pilot study was conducted of 50 Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate Facebook
users of varying concentrations of study and ages (see Appendix B). Our aim was to select
participants evenly distributed among the various colleges at Carnegie Mellon to ensure different
levels of technological ability. Survey participants were recruited in common areas of the
university to try and maintain a balanced student population. To begin, we saved a copy of the
participant’s Facebook profile before they took our survey, both from the view of a Carnegie
Mellon Facebook user (local user) and from the view of a Facebook user from another university
(global user). This was done to look at the different privacy settings that the participant had
chosen; their profile is viewable to all Facebook users, only users from their own university, and
to only their “friends”. As the participants were not “friends” with the researchers, this could be
easily tested. The survey asked about the types of information that participants are willing to
reveal to other Facebook users and their motivations for doing so. It also asked about their
Types of Information Provided
Clubs and Jobs
Figure 1. This chart shows the percentage of survey participants that chose to provide different categories of
reasons for joining Facebook and whom they ask to be their “friends” and what criteria they have
for accepting requests from other users to be their “friends.” Demographic data was also
collected to analyze trends once all of the data had been collected.
After the taking the survey, we looked at their Facebook profiles two and five days later and
saved it to our files both from a local and global user perspective. We then stripped all
identifying information from the 6 saved profiles and only made note of whether or not the
information was provided. This was done to protect the personal information of the participants.
5.1 Data That Users Share on Facebook
Users on Facebook can share a multitude of different types of data with others users. These
types of data include contact information, personal information like gender, birth date,
hometown, and school concentration, information regarding interests in movies, music, clubs,
books, relationship status and partner, and political affiliation. Users can in fact choose to fill in
any of this information and update their information at any time.
We found that a majority of users do provide most of this information. Our results in Figure 1
mostly corroborate the results found by Gross and Acquisti (Acquisti 2005). We found that more
than 60% of CMU profiles contained a profile image, birth date, home town, AIM screenname,
high school, relationship status, interests, and various types of their favorite things (books,
movies, musicians, etc). It has been found that the validity of the fields provided is
overwhelmingly accurate (Acquisti 2005).
From Figure 1 we can also see that the only types of information that users consistently do
not provide are their mailbox, current address, and mobile and home phone numbers. These
Reasons for Joining Facebook
10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
Friend Suggested It
Received a Promotional E-mail
Everyone I Know is on Facebook
Find Course Information
Find Mutual Interests
Get to Know More People
Help others keep in touch
Network in General
Figure 2. The red line separates the different reasons from joining Facebook into Category A and Category B as
indicated by the different red labels.
pieces of information are probably considered to be more private and are direct way of
contacting a user. They are the primary pieces of data that would be needed for identity theft or
stalking. While the percentage of given cell phone numbers and home phone numbers are of the
same magnitude, current addresses have a vast difference. The results from Gross and Acquisti
show much higher percentages of Facebook users providing address contact information. They
found that 50.8% of users gave their current address (Gross 2005), where as our data shows that
only 10.2% provided their current address.
We believe that the similarity of phone numbers is caused by the convenience of this
information. Users want their friends to be able to reach them. Users may have decided that
home addresses are not needed for convenience and could be considered more personal. In
general, it has been shown that Internet users are willing to reveal personal preferences online
such as favorite books and movies; however they are hesitant to share their personal contact
information online (Cranor et al. 1999). Our results for Facebook demonstrate this fact.
Information relating to contact information is provided less than 45%, but all other types of
information that we looked at are provided more often than 60% of the time.
5.2 Why Students Use Facebook
Actual Facebook statistics report that over five million accounts have been created and over
70% of those accounts are accessed every day (Cohler 2005). The reasons why users join
Facebook that we explore in our survey fall into two broad categories. Category A from Figure 2
involves joining Facebook due to friend recommendations and peer pressure. Category B from
Figure 2 relates to the usefulness of Facebook in meeting new people, keeping in touch, getting
help in courses, finding old friends, and making new friends. Our results indicate that most
students joined Facebook for reasons belonging to both categories. The distinction of these
categories is important because the reasons in Category B suggest that those surveyed were well
aware of how Facebook could be used and some of the advantages of using it. These users
probably view Facebook like a social network and enhanced directory tool to aid in various
Types of Friends
Friends from are Not Close
Users that individuals have asked to be their friends
Users that individuals have accepted requests from to be their friends
Figure 3. Graph showing the percentage of different types of Facebook users that surveyed participants initiated a
“friend” request to and accepted a “friend” request from.
social connecting. From the reasons listed in Category A, we may be able to conclude that other
influences exist besides the usefulness of the tool that encouraged users to join.
Category A responses provide some interesting questions. The choice to reveal personal
information may be attributed to peer-pressure or curiosity. Because a certain student’s peers and
friends are users and are sharing certain types of information, that student may feel obligated to
become a user. If they do not feel obligated, the student might instead have more trust of other
users because of how much information others share, and therefore act carelessly when sharing
On the other hand, Category B also has high responses. Users of Facebook also joined
because they hoped to make it more convenient for others to get in touch with them, find
classmates, and find friends with mutual interests. High response in this category suggests that
users see Facebook as a tool. Their decision to join was based on information about what the site
can actually be used for. If users made an informed decision to join Facebook, then maybe they
see the benefit of the information that they are sharing and they believe it outweighs the cost of a
loss in privacy.
Since users provided high responses for reasons to join Facebook in both categories, then
either analysis could be correct or it could be a combination of the above analyses. Users may be
informed about what the benefits and risks are to an extent, but they could still be influenced to
join and use Facebook based on peer pressure and because everyone else is doing it. Users may
be misinformed on not only all the benefits of Facebook, but also some of the risks of divulging
large amounts of personal information. We discuss our results as far as the use and knowledge of
privacy settings in the next section of this paper.
The reasons why people joined the Facebook community are important in examining the
reasons people share certain types of information and expose themselves to certain privacy risks.
Percentage of Users That Use Privacy Settings
10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
See in Searches
See Contact Info
Figure 4. This graph shows the different percentages of users that chose to restrict categories of information by
using the privacy options provided to them by Facebook’s privacy settings.
5.3 Facebook Privacy Settings May Be Under-Utilized.
Facebook provides users a way to restrict and specify the types of users that can view
different parts of their profile. They can control who can search for them, who can view their
profile, who can see their contact information, and who can see various other profile details. The
types of users they can choose from to view parts of their profile are users attending the same
school, just friends, and friends of friends at the same school. Friends can always view
everything. For profile searches, users can allow everyone, or some subset of people to search for
them. They also have the option of blocking specific people.
Because friends can always view an entire user’s profile, it is important to find out how
people choose their friends on Facebook. Those surveyed were given choices of a variety of
levels indicating how much interaction they have had with users whom they befriend and accept
as friends. Close friends from university and high school have been asked and befriended by
96% percent of users surveyed. Friends that are not close friends have been added as friends for
over 80% of participants. 54% of participants selected that they have accepted friends on
Facebook whom they wouldn’t consider friends, 44% selected that they have asked users who
aren’t friends to be Facebook friends. Figure 3 summarizes our results. In general, participants
were more lenient when accepting friends than asking other users to be their friends. We expect
that friends on Facebook are chosen and accepted much more readily than outside of Facebook.
Although they are referred to as friends, the trust level of Facebook friends may be different than
the trust level of friends outside of Facebook. We believe that a large percentage of users may
not make this distinction. The possibility exists that users do not make the best decisions for their
situation as to what information to allow their friends on Facebook to see.
Users surveyed were also asked questions that examined their awareness of privacy settings
on the Facebook. Specifically, we wanted to measure whether users know that they can change
their privacy settings, what settings users have changed and why, whether users have read the
Survey Effects on Users Providing Contact Information
5 Days After Survey
Figure 5. This chart shows the changes in the percentage of surveyed participants that gave each of the seven
possible fields of contact information before and five days after taking the survey.
(Cohler 2005). Our results corroborate this fact. We found that 80% of users surveyed have not
sharing data with third parties. These results correlate to what we found about the number of
users who altered their privacy settings as far as the number of users who have used privacy
Our results regarding how many users are aware that they can change their privacy settings
compared to how many users actually have changed their privacy settings demonstrate that users
are knowledgeable about their options within Facebook, but have chosen not to use them. 84%
of participants reported that they are aware that they can change their privacy settings. Of those
84%, less than 48% have made use of the privacy settings. Figure 4 details the specific types of
information that users restricted. Maybe users don’t see any issue with restricting who can see
the information they post and are fine with the restrictions that are provided by default. Another
conclusion could be that users aren’t aware of the risks of not protecting their personal
information that they share. They are not fully educated about how easy it may be for a stalker to
follow them or employer or parent to get a hold of what they and others post on their profile.
Maybe they haven’t considered how information on their profile can be used against them. This
idea is suggested by articles that report consequences of information being openly available on
Facebook (Schweitzer 2005).
5.4 Awareness Did Not Increase Privacy
One goal of administering surveys that ask users if they are aware of privacy settings and that
Facebook can share their personal information is to make users more aware of their options. We
checked each surveyed user’s profile after they had initially filled out the survey. As participants
listed identity theft and stalking as their primary privacy concerns, we looked at the changes in
the amount of contact information provided in Facebook profiles after taking the survey. We
found that there were minimal changes in the amount of information that survey participants
provided after taking the survey, as Figure 5 indicates. The percent decrease of users who
provided their website address had the largest drop with a drop just under 12%. Additional e-
mails being provided dropped by 8.33%, primary e-mails dropped 6.4%, and AIM screenname
disclosure dropped by 2.44%. The amount of phone numbers and cell phone numbers remained
constant. The disclosures of current addresses increased by 8.33%. Although there were some
changes to the amount of information disclosed, the strong majority of users made no changes to
their profile as far as reducing the amount of information in their profile. The 25-50% changes
that we expected were not prevalent in our data.
This suggests that users are comfortable with how much information they share and that they
may have already made an informed decision. In fact, research has been conducted that
concludes “even though individuals express concerns and awareness about Internet privacy, they
are still willing to engage in risky online activities” (Campbell et al. 2001). These online risky
behaviors could include providing contact information such as residence and cell phone
information to the entire Carnegie Mellon University Facebook user population. And although
we only observed minimal changes surrounding our survey, our results show that most users
haven’t already changed their privacy settings and provide a majority of the possible data
categories. Users in general haven’t taken advantage of the privacy settings that Facebook has to
offer and our survey had only a small effect in changing this.
Facebook provides its users with a chance to share information and model their social
networks online. Along with the benefits of making it easier to keep in touch and find out about
others more easily, there are risks and concerns with sharing information with large amounts of
From the results that we obtained we found that overall, the majority of students were aware
of the ability to restrict the amount of information they provided to different Facebook users.
While 40% of users did restrict some of their information, there are still large numbers of users
that are sharing very personal information like cell phone numbers and home addresses. The
overall effect of our survey seemed to be minimal. From the surveys we conclude that Facebook
users generally feel comfortable sharing their personal information in a campus environment.
Participants said that they “had nothing to hide” and “they don’t really care if other people see
their information.” These attitudes and behaviors will be difficult to change by merely asking
students to take a survey, no matter how informational it is. We believe that it will take an
unfortunate incident such as a victim of identity theft or stalking to shock Facebook users into
being more selective about the information that they make available to other users. To
substantiate our claim, a survey could be conducted on the amount of privacy settings and
restriction of information of Facebook users based upon their knowledge of an incident of
stalking or identity theft. If users have experienced identity theft or stalking, or know somebody
who has, they may be less likely to share their personal information.
7. Future Work
We hope to circulate this survey to more users in the future to get a broader answer on the
various questions we pose. Additionally, we can include demographic analysis to see if
demographics or technical ability correlate to awareness of privacy. Getting a larger body of
participants is essential for evaluating these finer points.
Facebook has added a new service on their site dedicated to the social networks of high
school students. The privacy implications of this could be quite astonishing. High school aged
users may be less aware of privacy risks and less able to assess the consequences of sharing their
personal data. Information from the high school site could be used in evaluating students
applying to universities by admissions staff. A much larger population of students in high school
are minors and therefore may be more vulnerable to issues relating to rules for minors. Examples
of these issues are alcohol consumption and stalking issues. There are many questions regarding
the ability of high school students to judge how sharing their personal information may impact
them negatively in the future.
Another feature has recently been launched on Facebook that may be of interest. The photo
album feature allows users to post photos of them and other users. Additionally, the users that
appear in a picture can be specified and the picture can be linked off of each identified user’s
profile. A user can remove the tag of them on the picture by going to an individual picture and
removing the tag. All pieces of information on Facebook where the user has a choice had been
opt-in previous to this feature. There may be some interesting questions about how opt-out
affects social networks. The shift to opt-out could also be a trend reflected in users’ willingness
to share personal information.
Examining these issues further will allow us to draw stronger conclusions and more specific
conclusions to different users and different types of information. Answering more questions will
give us more insight into the trends of how users view privacy and how privacy may be treated
and viewed in the future.
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