Cambridge academics have revealed that social networks that promote their security controls are likely to deter users from joining, and as a result privacy guidelines are inaccessible.
Open discussion of privacy on social networking sites puts off the average user, so websites do not produce "explicit or accessible privacy guidelines", according to researchers at Cambridge University who carried out the research.
The research ranked Bebo and LinkedIn highest for their privacy settings, while the British site Badoo was given the lowest mark. Facebook and MySpace were placed slightly above average.
"Sites want users to be relaxed and have fun, but when privacy is mentioned users feel less comfortable sharing data," said co-researcher Joseph Bonneau. "Even sites with good privacy feel that they cannot promote it, so users have no idea of what they are getting."
Personal information goes public
The research of 45 online social networks across the world revealed that the personal information of users is being made public. It says the "furious competition between social networking sites" is to blame.
The researchers found that sites which promoted their privacy controls as a selling point tended to attract fewer members. In their report, they suggest that this may be because the vast majority of people, while they may claim to be concerned about privacy, tend to forget about or ignore the possibility that this may be jeopardised when offered an attractive social networking service.
The report called for an "opt-out" approach to privacy. This would mean users' details are kept private until otherwise stated. It also called for stronger across-the-board regulation of these websites.
Measurement of privacy
The websites studied ranged from MySpace and Facebook to lesser-known foreign networks.
The research identified misleading privacy policies and inaccessible privacy guidelines.
- 90% of sites needlessly required a full name or date of birth for permission to join.
- 80% failed to use standard encryption protocols to protect sensitive user data from hackers.
- 71% reserved the right to share user data with third parties in their privacy policies.
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