The Tracking of Users' Unintentionally Shared Information by Social Network Sites

Rath Kanha Sar

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    Online tracking has been around ever since HTTP cookies were invented in the 1990s. The tracking technologies are becoming more sophisticated, and large amounts of online users’ information can be collected rapidly by numerous first and third party sites. This research aims to explore the privacy issues associated with the tracking of users’ information by major social network sites (SNSs) such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, from the perspective of online users and from the moral perspective of a privacy framework.
    The first stage of this research, which involves an exploratory study and experiments with 20 research participants from Cambodia, investigates the collection of online users’ information in HTTP headers. Among other outcomes, the experiment results indicated that online users’ information is being tracked by numerous third party sites including advertisers, data aggregators
    and major SNSs like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. The rest of this research focuses on tracking by SNSs owing to the fact that more than one billion users are actively using SNSs. In addition, SNSs are not only acquiring large quantities of personal information voluntarily supplied by users (intentionally shared information), but also details about their browsing activities around other sites (unintentionally shared information). The combination of these types
    of information reveals much about a person’s life.
    The second stage of this research gauges research participants’ awareness about online privacy and tracking by SNSs based on their browsing activities in the first stage of the research. It is influenced by ethnography and employs open-ended structured interviews in order to elicit the views of research participants. The outcomes of the interviews suggested that all participants valued privacy, either online or offline. It also revealed that 19/20 participants from Cambodia
    were not aware of online tracking by third party sites at all, nor did they read privacy policies. They perceived online tracking to be tracking by other Internet users who glean information through SNSs like Facebook. They expressed anger and concern about privacy loss when they learned that details about their browsing activities were being tracked by SNSs. They also stated that SNSs should have sought their permission before tracking their activities.
    Last but not least, the third stage of this research analysed the practice of tracking users’ unintentionally shared information by SNSs from a moral perspective. It employed Contextual Integrity (CI) as a framework by applying its prescribed norms (norms of appropriateness and norms of distribution) as well as its decision heuristic. Analysis conducted by applying the CI
    framework suggested that SNSs violated online users’ right to privacy because they failed to obtain online users’ informed consent or permission before moving their information across different contexts (e.g., collecting users’ information from sites outside SNS boundaries). The analysis through the lens of the CI framework appears to be consistent with the findings from
    the perspectives of research participants in Cambodia: users’ informed consent or permission is needed before SNSs can collect their information across different sites.
    This research did not only allow research participants to observe the sharing of their information in the HTTP headers, but also gauged their perceptions and awareness of the practice of online tracking. It is also the first ICT work that involved research participants from Cambodia. Unlike the existing literature that tested a large number of cases, information sharing examined in this research is based on smaller number of cases, but includes real life online users’ browsing activities. In addition, this is also the first research that involved analysing
    the impacts of tracking by SNSs from not only the perspective of online users, but also from a moral perspective. The findings from both perspectives are consistent. Hence, tracking of users’ unintentionally shared information by SNSs appears to be wrong. The researcher hopes that future work will investigate this practice from the perspective of other stakeholders such as SNSs, advertisers and data aggregators. For example, future research could focus on what
    happens to users’ unintentionally shared information once collected. This will enable decisions to be made about whether or not this practice is harmful to users.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Al-Saggaf, Yeslam, Principal Supervisor
    • Oczkowski, Edward, Co-Supervisor
    • Islam, Zahid, Co-Supervisor
    Award date01 Mar 2014
    Place of PublicationAustralia
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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