What you say online can be used against you

the profile of the founder of FacebookFacebook is an immensely popular online social network site that boasts over 85 percent of college students in the United States (and similar numbers in other developed countries) are members. Reportedly there are over 50 million active members. Microsoft recently acquired a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook for $240 million, thus valuing the company at $15 billion. Or to do the maths another way, each use on Facebook is worth about $300 to the company.

The astronomical rise of Facebook has not been without controversy. The latest controversy concerned the fact that purchases made with outside companies appear on Facebook profiles if they are made through Facebook. This has caused some consternation because users felt they should have been "more strongly" notified that this information would be placed online. MoveOn.org, a left-wing anti-war lobbying group, even posted a petition to stop the data collection.

Such complaints have not been uncommon in the history of social networking and Facebook in particular. Every year around college graduation time, stories emerge that employers scrutinise potential new-hire's Facebook profiles before extending the final offer. Employers do not want to hire the campus drunk and if someone puts that persona forward online, an employer may think twice. Originally Facebook was restricted to just college students. However, it has since been opened up to anyone with an email address, making employer access to profiles much easier.

Then there is the advent of the "Facebook stalker" who uses online profiles to harass young women which is humorously parodied in this video (a must-see if you hate Enrique Iglesias). When users of social networking sites not only include their residences but the events they go to, the names (and residences) of their friends, what parties they'll be at and their class schedules in public, it only invites individuals they'd rather not associate with to use that information.

While social networking companies have started to be more careful with their users (MySpace, for instance, now scans their users for convicted paedophiles and those on sex offender registries), by and large it is an "anything goes" realm. On the one hand, users of social networking want to put up information on themselves with careless abandon, and on the other, they cry foul when the information is misused. The same is just as true for blogging, for example, where the cases of people losing jobs (or not getting them) for content on their blog are quite numerous.

Facebook, for instance, has many privacy-enhancing features that seem to rarely be used by those who complain the loudest. Profiles can be set to private except for friends, online information can be restricted to a subset of trusted people, and habitual trouble-makers can be blocked outright. Why social networking users don't, in general, take the personal responsibility to protect themselves is the question that demands an answer. If users aren't going to take responsibility for the content they put up, the companies won't do it for them.

Companies, for their part, are happy to provide these services for free to users to put up whatever information they'd like. To those companies, these users are a captive audience for their advertisers who pay to peddle their wares to "Joe Facebook". In many cases, the social networking sites use the profile information themselves to sell to advertisers who will "target" their advertising accordingly. The immense amount of success Google has had in leveraging data on its users for marketing purposes have not gone unnoticed by the advertising industry.

Facebook is hardly alone in the controversies of online privacy. MySpace was previously mentioned, but other sites like LinkedIn are designed to include the entire professional resume of its users. While the site is used for business networking, the information is available for others to use how they see fit. For instance, this author has used LinkedIn and Facebook profiles in the course of computer security investigations.

In the end, only the individual putting information out there is responsible for the privacy of what they say. When people go out in public, they harbor no delusions of privacy. The same is true in the online world, if they create a blog under their real name and post scandalous content, have a Facebook profile that shows them to be a profligate drunkard, or a LinkedIn profile that directly contradicts the resume that they sent the employer that is viewing it, they can't expect this information to magically stay private. What you say and do online can be used against you.

Citizens who are paranoid about government knowing the slightest detail about them or fear that the FBI might listen when they're calling a terrorist will brain-dump the most intimate details of their lives on their blogs and online profiles. Apparently people have no problem handing over their personal lives to a business which will exploit it for commercial gain.

Either privacy is important or it's not. At this rate, governments could simply data-mine social networking sites and avoid the legal strife of tapping phones. Who needs a court warrant when people are shouting from their desktops?

The internet has ushered in an era of openness that has crossed national boundaries. China, for instance, has no small amount of difficulty in keeping information "unfriendly" to the Communist Party of China out of the country. This openness also affects the users of the web in what they post online. People seem to be freer with what they say, share and discuss online. Most of the time, there are no untoward consequences. However, occasionally someone could find this information with a little help from Google and use it in unintended ways. Time will tell if people will self-moderate their openness to a reasonable level or if they will insist that someone else protect their privacy.


is a freelance columnist and blogger at Part-Time
. He also writes for several other popular websites such as BC Magazine and the Internet Storm Center.




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