The last few years has seen a boom in the area of online web communities, with sites like Myspace (http://www.myspace.com) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) being the standout favourites among the youth of today. “Facebook was born in February 2004 as an online alternative to Harvard University's paper-and-ink social directory” (Dye, 2007). Myspace was originally started as a platform for University students to communicate as well as artists of all persuasions from music to the arts. These sites are becoming extremely popular with Myspace registering over 116 million personal profiles online. Along with the obvious positives that the ability to share information gives us, come the risks associated with the storage of this personal data within the public domain. One of the most sensitive areas under discussion involves the disclosure of information about minors, which can then be accessed by sexual predators. Another situation Bloggers are finding themselves in is the posting of personal information which “…could come back to haunt indiscreet users in the future, warn scholars at Purdue University” (Wagner, 2006). “New Scientist Magazine has discovered that Pentagon's National security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks” (Marks, 2006). Others in the industry see Myspace as a social sellout with the site allowing corporations and businesses to market online to potential customers. These issues are becoming more evident as more members of the public are logging on and becoming social networkers.
Creating an online profile for social networking sites is a great way for individuals to communicate with friends and family and to stay in touch using the internet. People with common interests can share ideas and stories, recently social networking has taken off particularly by teenagers who are now using this medium of communication as much as, if not more than email. To create a social networking account are user is asked to supply a variety of personal details including their contact phone numbers, addresses, school details and personal pictures. Storing this type of information in the public domain is becoming an issue. Would parents allow their child to post this information about themselves on a shopping centre noticeboard or publish it in a newspaper? Regardless children are posting this information online without parental consent. In Facebook’s defence they do provide protection for their users by defaulting many data fields to be available to “only my friends”. Users would need to consciously change this setting to allow all personal information to be publicly available.
Unfortunately parents don’t always know what their children are doing online.
So all of this can some times go unnoticed.
Determining if someone is to be an online friend can be still be based on fictitious data. The anonymity of social networking allows users to create accounts using false information and there is no way this information can be verified. This is how predators are able to abuse the system. One example of this abuse resulted in the rape of a 14-year-old girl in Texas by an older man whom she had met on Myspace (MSNBC, 2006). In another case a sex offender in the United Kingdom used Facebook to groom a girl of 15 for sex. The offender won the girls trust online, and then arranged a meeting with the intention of having sex with the minor. As a result the man was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. (The Sun, 2007)
In an attempt to minimise these types of incidents authorities have started to take action.
Following an investigation by New York's attorney general into the social-networking site Facebook, both parties have drawn up a new model for online interaction.
Under the terms of the agreement Facebook will:
• “Disclose the newly implemented safety procedures on its website as specified by the agreement. Ensure that all other public statements made by Facebook about safety are consistent with the specified language.
• Accept complaints about nudity or pornography, harassment or unwelcome contact confidentially via hyperlinks placed throughout Facebook’s website as well as via an independent email to email@example.com.
• Respond to and begin addressing complaints about nudity or pornography, harassment or unwelcome contact within 24 hours.
• Report to the complainant the steps it has taken to address the complaint within 72 hours where the complaint has been submitted via an independent email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Allow Facebook’s complaint review process to be examined by an Independent Safety and Security Examiner (ISSE), a third party approved by the New York State Attorney General’s Office, to report on Facebook’s compliance with the agreement.
• Provide a prominent and easily accessible hyperlink to allow a Facebook user or their parent/guardian to give feedback to the Independent Safety and Security Examiner (ISSE) about Facebook’s performance in responding to complaints.
• Submit to the Office reports prepared by the Independent Safety and Security Examiner (ISSE) evaluating Facebook’s performance in responding to complaints. The Examiner will report bi-annually and may recommend additional safety measures concerning complaint handling, as appropriate. DOC”
In a press release from the attorney general’s office, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal co-chairs the national social networking taskforce and believes that while the New York settlement is a step forward companies like Facebook need to do more. The task force is expected to urge:
• “Requiring age and identity verification for users 18 and older, and parental permission for users younger than 18.
• Implementing filtering technology to screen out sexually explicit, racist, violent or other mature images and significantly increasing the number of staff reviewing such images.
• Prohibiting sexually explicit and other inappropriate word and phrase searches.
• Hiding minors' profiles from adults.
• Limiting minors' search options.
• Removing inappropriate advertising targeting minors.”
Like many other moral issues government protection can only go so far responsibility for children’s safety also rests within the home. Parents need to be vigilante and aware of what their children are doing online Dr Michael Carr-Gregg an adolescent Psychologist and the author of “Real Wired Child” (Penguin 2007) identified seven rules for all families when it comes to social networking sites.
1. “Make sure that computers are in public places in the home and not in the child's bedroom.
2. Download a free internet filter and keylogger software.
3. When your kids are online, do a little ``shoulder surfing'' from time to time.
4. Check their social networking profile regularly.
5. Never meet in person the people you have met online.
6. Don't post anything that would embarrass you later.
7. Think twice before posting a photo or info you would not want your parents, teachers, future boss or landlord to see.”
Another danger comes not from sexual predators but from the users themselves. Where older students get into trouble with online communities is not understanding that the information they post may stick around, becoming a paperless but permanent record of their character. (Wagner, 2006) A great injustice in the eyes of some are the old or unflattering photographs that make it into Google Image search. It is difficult if not impossible to get such things removed-or to chase down a trail of negative or false information once it’s been able to fester on the web. (Vise, 2005) It may be considered harmless fun posting questionable photos or stories of oneself in a blog, but to a future employer doing a simple background check it can be viewed as less than desirable behavior in a future employee. Users need to practice self-censorship when it comes to posting personal information online.
With the amount of personal information being stored online The National Security Agency (NSA) is pursuing its plans to tap the web since phone logs have limited scope (Anderson, 2007). Not only are potential employers gathering information from blogs, the NSA are filtering the majority of internet data in the US using Filters which search for key terms. These filters allow the NSA to data mine huge amounts of traffic both domestic and international. With the majority of web servers based in the United States users need to be aware said that the bulk of worldwide internet traffic has at some time gone through an NSA filter.
Businesses are seeing an opportunity to make money off these social networking sites. Myspace allows companies to develop personal profiles to create an online presence where their biggest customers spend their free time. Wade Roush an editor for Technology Review has concerns that.
“MySpace is undermining the "social" in social networking. The general expectation when one joins a social network is that its other members are actual people. On MySpace, this isn't always so. The movie Jackass: Number Two has a profile on the site, as do Pepsi, NASCAR, and Veronica Mars, the CW network's teen detective. The company interprets the idea of a "profile" so broadly that real people end up on the same footing as products, movies, promotional campaigns, and fictional characters-not exactly the conditions for a new flowering of authentic personal expression.
This is an example of how businesses are making their way into every corner of the internet wherever they can see a potential customer or a chance to push their brand. Businesses make money on the web, many companies are solely web based for example Amazon.com and Ebay.com, any information these companies can gather about potential customers strengthens their position in the market. Social networkers should be wary of this when providing personal information online.
In conclusion like any new medium, care needs to be exercised when it comes to personal security. While governments mandate safeguards aimed at protecting minors while online, the final responsibility lies with the parent. Parents need to be vigilant and educate their children in the dangers that exist when communicating with anonymous strangers online. Just as parents educate their children not to accept lifts with strangers. They need to work with their children to ensure their children understand that some information should be kept private. Parents need also to understand what their children are accessing on the World Wide Web and whom they are communicating with. Older Users also need to exercise care when posting personal information online. Users need to be aware that all information stored online can be accessed either legally or illegally by various institutions and individuals. Web users need to understand that businesses on the web are still businesses and that they are trying to make money at every point, they see every web browser as a potential customer.
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Blumenthal, R (2007). Facebook to take stronger steps to protect kids. Retrieved December 4, 2007, from Office of the Attorney General Web site: http://www.ct.gov/ag/cwp/view.asp?A=2788&Q=397458
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