Safer social networking
Would you tell a complete stranger all about your family, work, love life, hobbies and interests? And give them some personal photos to look at too? Most people approached on the street would probably answer ‘no’ to the above questions. But on the Internet, that’s exactly what millions of us are doing on the hugely popular social networking sites and chat rooms.
MySpace, Facebook, Orkut, Bebo, Hi5 and other social networks have caught the imagination of Internet users all over the world. They provide an entertaining way of keeping in touch with friends by creating a community where people can interact in different ways, for instance by instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms, special interest subgroups and blogs, or by sharing photos, music and video clips. Some social networks are geared for dating purposes while others promote business contacts.
These web sites are probably the best way to find out what happened to your old school friends or who belongs to your ex-partner’s circle of friends. It can be an addictive pastime and many people are well and truly hooked. The media hype around these web sites has also increased their coolness factor. Celebrities are giving interviews about how many times a day they update their Facebook pages and read up on their friends’ activities. Musicians and other artists are actively promoting their work on MySpace.
Online social networks are fun and hip, but they also present a major security concern for Internet users. With millions of active users and vast databases full of valuable information, social networking sites are increasingly targeted by online criminals. Their mission? To get inside our computers, steal our personal information and empty our bank accounts.
Danger of revealing too much
At the heart of the social networking phenomenon are the personal profile pages that users create about themselves. These can be linked to their friends’ pages, the friends of their friends, and so on. The more information everyone publishes on their pages and the wider the communities grow, the juicier the interaction obviously becomes.
Of course, it’s up to you what to reveal about your personal life. The web sites also provide different levels of privacy settings to control access to your profile page and your interaction with others. But does your information really remain private? The reality is that the more information you give online, the more vulnerable you also become – with possibly far-reaching consequences on your life outside the Internet. Nevertheless, many people are throwing caution to the wind when it comes to protecting their privacy and reputation online.
So what are the risks of telling too much about yourself? For a start, identity theft is a major industry on the Internet. Information extracted from social networking sites is used by criminals to spam our e-mails and for targeted attacks on specific individuals and companies, using sophisticated social engineering techniques.
Personal information provides a level of credibility that can make the criminals’ approaches more convincing. For example, it could be an e-mail pretending to be from someone you know, addressing you by your first name and mentioning the names of your children. It doesn’t look like a spam message and can trick you into revealing even more sensitive information. Similar methods are also used to gain financial information from businesses.
Social networking sites are also used by predators and paedophiles searching for possible victims. It’s easy for anyone to adopt false identities on the Web, so you should maintain a healthy scepticism over what you see and hear on social networking sites. The bright young student you are conversing with could always be a middle-aged fraud. If you want to meet a person who you have befriended online, always do it in a public place, preferably accompanied by someone.
As social networking sites and chat rooms are especially attractive to children and teenagers, it is essential that parents educate them about safe online behaviour and keep tabs on what they are doing online. The first rule about making profile pages and posting messages on public web sites is that you should never give out your address, telephone number, social security number, banking details, passwords, or any detailed information about your daily routines.
Bebo provides an excellent summary of the security issues involving social networking sites for both parents and children at www.bebo.com/Safety.jsp Another recommended site for parents is www.saferinternet.org.
Maintain a good reputation
It’s worth remembering that whatever you post on your profile page, or other community forum, remains in the public sphere long after you log out of the web site. This includes the crazy stuff and wild photos that you posted on Facebook but decided to delete ten minutes later because it suddenly seemed like a bad idea. The problem is that you can’t really retract it. Once it’s out there on the Web, you have little control over who copies the material, where it is used and how widely it gets distributed.
So protect your reputation. Think twice before getting involved in slanging matches in online forums or publishing compromising photos that may one day show you in a bad light. Resist the temptation to impress your friends with a profile that gives away too much. It may end up being abused by people who really should know nothing about you.
A momentary lack of judgment can still come to haunt in years to come when applying for jobs or courses, or when accepting a position of responsibility in the community. Employers do a web search on everyone they are thinking of hiring. So do potential life partners! Some stories are just better told face to face, to the right people, and when the time is right.
Many online social networks encourage users to import content like video clips and also accept third party add-on applications. This can be exploited by virus writers as a way of getting malicious code into the networks, such as the worm which spread rapidly on Orkut’s web site last year, infecting an estimated 655,000 users in Brazil.
The best way to guard against such threats is to install software like F-Secure Internet Security 2009, which updates your computer’s defences automatically and makes sure you won’t be the one spreading worms among your network of friends. It’s also important to update your web browser, so remember to click on the security updates for Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, or any other browser you are using. This helps to keep your computer patched up against the viruses.
Today your online wellbeing has a direct impact on the rest of your life. So enjoy the social networking sites while also keeping security in mind. That way you are protecting your computer, money and reputation, as well as your family and friends.