An interesting mini-controversy developed at Princeton last week over the use of the Facebook.com web site by Princeton’s Public Safety officers (i.e., the campus police).
If you’re not familiar with Facebook, you must not be spending much time on a college campus. Facebook is a sort of social networking site for college students, faculty and staff (but mostly students). You can set up a home page with your picture and other information about you. You can make links to your friends’ pages, by mutual consent. You can post photos on your page. You can post comments on your friends’ pages. You can form groups based on some shared interest, and people can join the groups.
The controversy started with a story in the Daily Princetonian revealing that Public Safety had used Facebook in two investigations. In one case, a student’s friend posted a photo of the student that was taken during a party in the student’s room. The photo reportedly showed the student hosting a dorm-room party where alcohol was served, which is a violation of campus rules. In another case, there was a group of students who liked to climb up the sides of buildings on campus. They had set up a building-climbers’ group on Facebook, and Public Safety reportedly used the group to identify the group’s members, so as to have Serious Discussions with them.
Some students reacted with outrage, seeing this as an invasion of privacy and an unfair tactic by Public Safety. I find this reaction really interesting.
Students who stop to think about how Facebook works will realize that it’s not very private. Anybody with a princeton.edu email address can get an account on the Princeton Facebook site and view pages. That’s a large group, including current students, alumni, faculty, and staff. (Public Safety officers are staff members.)
And yet students seem to think of Facebook as somehow private, and they continue to post lots of private information on the site. A few weeks ago, I surfed around the site at random. Within two or three minutes I spotted Student A’s page saying, in a matter of fact way, that Student A had recently slept with Student B. Student B’s page confirmed this event, and described what it was like. Look around on the site and you’ll see many descriptions of private activities, indiscretions, and rule-breaking.
I have to admit that I find this pretty hard to understand. Regular readers of this blog know that I reveal almost nothing about my personal life. If you have read carefully over the last three and a half years, you have learned that I live in the Princeton area, am married, and have at least one child (of unspecified age(s)). Not exactly tabloid material. Some bloggers say more – a lot more – but I am more comfortable this way. Anyway, if I did write about my personal life, I would expect that everybody in the world would find out what I wrote, assuming they cared.
It’s easy to see why Public Safety might be interested in reading Facebook, and why students might want to keep Public Safety away. In the end, Public Safety stated that it would not hunt around randomly on Facebook, but it would continue to use Facebook as a tool in specific investigations. Many people consider this a reasonable compromise. It feels right to me, though I can’t quite articulate why.
Expect this to become an issue on other campuses too.