Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The risks of social networking

If a leaflet arrived through your door or an email found its way to your inbox asking for personal and private information which would be stored by the government, many members of the public would be up in arms. The suggestion for an ID card, proposed by the British government, has already been met with derision and criticism as an invasion of privacy.

Yet millions of citizens are prepared and openly willing to put personal, private and potentially self incriminating information on the internet via so called ‘social networking sites’. Facebook is becoming increasingly popular, and along with sites such as MySpace, Friends Reunited and Flickr, they are becoming a massive resource of information for 3rd parties, whether that be the state or unscrupulous criminals.

Signing into Facebook for the first time will require the user to reveal their date of birth, their real name and email address. Of course not all this information is displayed online, if appropriate boxes are checked, but with dubious privacy policies, published by Facebook, the information may be provided to others. According to the original Facebook policy, they state, "We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile." Additionally they say "We may share your information with third parties, including responsible companies with which we have a relationship." But besides assurances from spokesmen Chris Hughes that they have never provided information to 3rd parties, many are concerned. Another particular concern is that users may only ‘deactivate’ their account, and not entirely delete it. Once an account has been deactivated, all the personal information of users remain on Facebook's servers in case in the future they wish to reactivate. The website provides no means for users to permanently delete their account. A student from the University of British Columbia pursued the issue with Facebook. A Facebook representative responded by asking the student to "clear his account" before the termination process could begin. This included "415 wall posts, 126 friends, and 38 groups." The student subsequently gave up on terminating his account permanently as the process of deleting every wall post, friend and group on his profile would require 1158 mouse clicks [Criticism of Facebook]. This was clarrified further on Channel Four News which raised the subject with Facebook. However the company only provided written answers to some of the questions posed to them. On one point they were adamant. Facebook told Channel 4 News that: "We give users the notice that the UK Data Protection Act requires in order to inform them about what information is collected. We also give users granular control over what information they share and who they share it with."

The Information Commissioner's Office, which oversees the implementation of the Data Protection Act said in a statement:"Many people are posting content on social networking sites without thinking about the electronic footprint they leave behind. It is important that individuals consider this when putting information online. However, it is equally important that websites also take some responsibility. "In particular they should ensure that personal information is not retained for longer than necessary especially when the information relates to a person who no longer uses the site."

According to a study conducted at MIT, privacy on Facebook is undermined by three principal factors: users disclose too much, Facebook does not take adequate steps to protect user privacy, and third parties are actively seeking out end-user information using Facebook. We based our end-user findings on a survey of MIT students and statistical analysis of Facebook data from MIT,
Harvard, NYU, and the University of Oklahoma. We analyzed the Facebook system in terms of Fair Information Practices as recommended by the Federal Trade Commission. In light of the information available and the system that protects it, we used a threat model to analyze specific privacy risks [MIT report].

All this is leaving many users of such sites open to identity theft. The Daily Telegraph reported that it is an issue which is beginning to concern many banks which have seen a rise in internet fraud over the past few years. Online banking fraud rose by 44 per cent last year [2006] to £33.5 million, according to the payment association APACS, whilst Internet shopping fraud amounted to £155 million.

There is also the threat to your career. Too much information about yourself can give potential employers ammunition with which to make a decision to weed out candidates from their lists. Being too honest may also get you fired. According to an article in The Sun, Tom Beech set up a thread entitled: "I work at Argos and can't wait to leave because it's sh*t." However, the newspaper said that bosses instructed Beech to shut down his posting, and suspended him from his job in Wokingham. Others face disciplinary proceedings for spending too much time on the site.

Such sites are also proving a more direct threat with people being targeted by stalkers and worse. CNN yesterday highlighted the case of a MySpace user who was unwittingly drawn into a friendship with a ficticious ‘boy’ who later turned out to be a parent living nearby. At first messages from the ‘boy’ were complimentary. But later the insults came flying, and the young and impressionable girl became distraught. The 13-year-old, Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, subsequently hanged herself. But while the media have widely reported the tragedy in sympathetic terms, others have been less forgiving. The meganhaditcoming.blogspot.com portrays Megan as a ‘drama queen’ who was ‘fat’ and a ‘bitch’. The adage that you can’t libel the dead may be true, but the vitriol disseminated on the internet about this girl displays yet another pitfall of the internet age. There were nonetheless more than 200 comments left on this blog, all critical of the mother who pretended to be a friend of Megan.

The internet may be a powerful resource for information, but that information may well be yours and may be your undoing.

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