Article Disclaimer - In this article I am using MySpace as a tool in an online data gathering experiment. My usage of this particular site does not imply in any way, shape or form that MySpace is deficient in protection of personal information, or in any way complicit with any of the criminal activities described below. I used MySpace because it's a system where personal (and sometimes confidential) data over sharing by the users is common, and also because it's a system that I quite enjoy using and one that I am familiar with. I personally like social networking, and I think it's a great way to stay in touch with people. Thus, this article is not about the totality of the circumstances concerning social networking, but rather about some very specific aspects of it that can have dangerous consequences.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. It allows us to search for information without leaving our house, participate in various communities and interact with both the people we already know and with new acquaintances. We browse, join forums, set up social networking profiles, write blogs and generally remain proper Netizens.
Yay! We are a part of a global community! We can connect with others, and others can connect with us! We are visible to the world!
Let's stop here and consider something - while the world is populated with many great people, it also bears the weight of scammers, stalkers, pedophiles and a myriad of other unsavory characters. Guess what? They're on the 'Net, searching for information.
If the question of "Why would they do that?" just popped into your mind, here's three concise answers - because it's easy, free and it serves their purpose.
Let's examine these three answers and see where they lead us.
- EXERCISE IN EASE.
You don't have to take my word for just how easy it is to obtain personal information on the 'Net. You can find out for yourself. In this exercise, we will use a MySpace account since I am familiar with that particular Social Networking site, and also because it happens to be a gold mine of personal data. You will also need a writing pad, a pen and a folder on your computer's desktop called "photos".
There is one steady rule for our exercise - if there's a date next to any personal information of yours that you find, always write down the date as well.
Ready? Good. Go to your MySpace profile, but do not log in.
- Write down your display name, age, location and whatever tag line that you're using that day and your profile handle. Save your profile picture to the "photos" folder on your desktop.
- Check out your Blurbs section - write down every piece of personal information present. Save all personal photos.
- Check out your Blogs. Once again, write down all the personal information that you mentioned on any one of your blogs. Save all personal photos.
- Check out every other module on your page. Note down everything you posted in Interests and Details.
- If you have a Networking module, write down all the data from there as well.
- Take a close look at every single thing posted in the Comments section of your profile. Write down every personal detail mentioned by your friends, and save all personal photos.
- Go to your Photos and Videos categories. Don't save the photos and videos, but take note of each and every one of those that contain descriptions of you and your life.
If your profile is fully set to private, you probably don't have much information written down. Go ahead, log in and follow the bullet points listed above, this time on your full profile. Don't forget to write down the e-mail address you used to log in.
Check out the first 15 profiles of the people on your Friends list, following the procedure from above but keeping in mind that you are only looking for information about yourself. Look for instant messenger handles mentioned, pictures of you on your friends' profiles, comments about you etc. Everything that in some way relates to you is fair game for writing down.
By now, you probably have quite a bit of info committed to your pad, and a few pictures in your folder.
Go to Google and do searches for the information you obtained from your own and your friends' profiles. Search for everything - display name, profile handle, e-mail address, names etc. Write down what you find.
So, what did you find? If you are stealthy about your online presence and so are your friends, you probably haven't found much. If that's the case, then you are in the minority.
If you're not - did you perchance stumble upon an old blog of yours containing even more of your personal details? Did a membership on a special interest message board appear in search results? When you Googled your profile handle, did you find a comment you made on someone else's video two years ago, or maybe did you see a few profiles of people who have you listed as a friend? Did you find your e-mail address listed on a web site of a community project you've helped to develop?
All of the information you gathered is pretty much useless on its own. Nobody is going to glean much information from your e-mail address listed on a community project's website other than for the fact that you participated in that project in some way, shape or form. A lone membership on an Internet message board is not going to give away much information either.
It's when this information is collated and researched further that things get concerning. If you're still up for a bit more of our exercise, try going deeper into your own 'Net life and then linking all of the information together. Did a forum membership pop up on one of your searches? Check out the forum and see what you posted there. Write down anything that's personal. An old blog or blog comment? Yep, write that down too. Don't forget the dates.
Once you're done with that, write your own profile. Take all the information you obtained, cross reference it and put it in writing.
If you're persistent enough, you will eventually hold in your hands a little biography of what you've been doing for the past few years, where and with whom.
See? It is easy. Let's move on to the "free" part of my earlier answer.
- FREE, FOR REAL.
You might have already noticed that clicking around social networking profiles doesn't cost a dime. Neither does doing Google searches. Without paying anything, you have obtained information aplenty about yourself. This is just the beginning of the road.
There is a myriad of services on the 'Net offering public records searches. Majority of these databases require a payment for access to full records - but many offer a limited search for free, just so that you can check out basic listings and see if the person you're looking for is there. Innocuous? Nope. Many of those searches will provide you with listings of relatives and roommates affiliated with your name and\or address. They will also list your age. Someone who has a more or less idea as to where you live and how old you are can run a search and find more information to dig through.
Those databases can be used in many ways - all of which eventually lead to further bits of your personal information being exposed.
Databases maintained by government agencies such as County and Circuit courts are another source of information. If someone knows your location and name, they can have a nice and most often free surf through the records. The result? More information. Check out your local county's or city's website - is there a way to obtain more information about you there for free? I am aware of at least one city's site in the United States where one can look up someone else's utility bill (and view a full copy of it online) as long as they know the address of the property. What does the utility bill list? You guessed it, full name of the person who holds that account.
Check it out. Run a few searches on yourself. Once you're done, consider how much money we've spent so far.
A big, fat $0.
See? It is free.
- PURPOSE SERVED
All right, so why would anyone be spending time on researching your life? Let's discuss a few options.
If you're a parent, you have most likely heard about pedophiles trawling the 'Net in search of victims. The information you post on your own social networking profile can easily serve as a gateway for the criminal to gain access to your child. Do you post pictures of your children? Do you mention their names? Do you use your profile to discuss school event planning with other parents? Any kind of information concerning your child is of value to a pedophile - using the data you provide, a skilled one can pinpoint your child's given location at a given time, and have the means of identifying your child via pictures. You do not want to find yourself in a situation where a few clicks online turn into a real life victimization of your child.
- Youngsters and Teens
If you're a teen - now, don't pout at me just yet - having your information available on the 'Net can have serious consequences.
Pedophiles are not interested in someone like me, they are looking for you because you fit their definition of prey. Every little bit of information about yourself that you make public gets them closer to identifying you and potentially getting in touch in a way much more personal than an e-mail. If you think you're being careful - that's not enough. You have to be vigilant, and this starts with making it as difficult as possible to track you down. Always remember that safety is like air - it ain't that important until you're not getting any.
I'm not done yet. Do you post about your family on your profile? Did you let everyone know when your parents finally bought that new, expensive house? Is it common knowledge among your peers that you're a cat person, that your family is against the use of firearms and that the property's security system has been wonky lately? Do you live in an area where pizza delivery gets to your house faster than the Police does? You have just handed a burglar basically all the information they needed to research you a bit more, scout out your house and wait until you post on your profile about when you're going on a family vacation.
This is not just about you. Other people can get hurt. Think about that for a moment.
Do you work for someone else? Do you have your employer's name listed on your profile? Do you blog a lot about your job, or discuss it online with your coworkers? You might want to stop right there.
Discussing your work in public can have major implications for your employer and thus, in turn, for you. Posting specifics about the question that John asked about your project yesterday and making fun of the said John may be just a way to vent frustration for you - for a competitor of your employer, it can be a vital piece of information they were missing. If the competitor is savvy (many are, industrial espionage is booming on the 'Net), they can do their own research project on you and follow you around the World Wide Web to see what else you've posted about with regard to the company you work for. In this case, curiosity will not kill the cat, but it will nearly guarantee you a speedy exit stage left - straight into the pool of the unemployed.
Fame brings a lot of good and a lot of bad things along with it. There isn't much you can do about publicity - you have to attend events and give interviews. Your privacy is diminished by your exposure to the public eye basically by default. Ask yourself - are you dismantling the remainder of your privacy though your social networking activities? Are you putting people close to you in danger?
Do you publicly discuss every single aspect of your private life on your profile? Do you mention places, dates and names associated with your family events? Do you upload private photos to your profile? All of the above is cannon fodder for a stalker. A person who is obsessed with you will interpret everything you post in their own twisted way. Something that you considered entirely innocent may negatively impact an emotionally disturbed person and cause them to act out. You may brush that off by saying that you have security.
You may, but your non-celebrity associates most likely don't.
Do you have a public social networking profile where you add your personal friends who are not celebrities themselves? Do you mention their names and other personal details on your profile? Do you blog about them? What about your closest family? How much information about all those people do you share? Consider this - one of the easiest ways of getting to you is befriending someone who moves freely within your circle. Those people can become exposed to gaining new "friends" they didn't really want in the first place. Your own friends' names and personal details can be used to obtain access into some part of your life. Last, but certainly not the least, your loved ones can become targets of the stalker, especially if they refuse to engage and provide them with either information or attention. At the very minimum, people you are close with can be exposed to having their lives rummaged through and discussed on public message boards with the inclusion of personal data.
Conversely, have you checked out what your friends are posting about you? Are their profiles private? Are they disclosing enough information about themselves to allow for someone to use that against them, and in the end, you? Do you know who they are friends with? Run the little exercise from the beginning of this article on your own profile. I hope you don't end up finding what I discovered when I was exploring my little theory about online data mining - cell phone numbers, home addresses and photos of homes with a full street sign in front - all in plain view.
You cannot manage the Internet and you cannot manage what others post about you. But you can significantly stem the flow of information by sharing your most private details only with the people who you know and who you trust. Split your online presence in two - have a celebrity profile, and set up a private one that you only share with your true friends. That way, fans will be happily reading about your new public endeavors while the folks close to you will still have the benefit of staying in touch, this time in a much more private setting.
Remember - security cannot contain what they don't know about, and restraining orders not only have little effect on the severely delusional, they also don't stop fists, knives and bullets. Don't become a statistic because you wanted to share something and it was taken the wrong way.
That's us, the inhabitants of the Internet. We go about our virtual life, discuss things and generally just have a good time. So, why would anyone research us?
Have you ****ed off someone in the recent past? For an angry person on a mission, the Internet is a paradise. Starting from your social networking profile, they can plow through your data to be able to pick and choose as to how they're going to exact their revenge on you. What can they do?
- leave nasty comments about you on your profile;
- leave nasty comments about you on other people's profiles;
- follow you around the 'Net and leave comments at other web places you visit;
- send you threatening messages;
- attempt to blackmail you if during their research they discover something that may be perceived as damaging to you;
- disclose your personal and confidential information on various public sources such as message boards and discussion communities;
- set up a web site containing your personal information, alongside with their angry outpourings;
- alter your pictures with photo manipulation software so that they make you appear present in a compromising situation;
What I described above is commonly known as "cyber bullying". It's the World Wide Web equivalent of the proverbial "schoolyard bully" behavior, with the added "bonus" of anonymity and ease of access. Unfortunately, while cyber bullying may be reserved to the Internet, the results of it sometimes are not.
The real life results of cyber bullying vary, but they are all disturbing - families moving out of the state of their residence, relationships breaking down and, in the most heart wrenching of cases, people of all ages ending their own lives.
Cyber bullying can affect you in many different ways - make sure people who are angry with you don't start their revenge from a good vantage point.
Okay, so you haven't ticked anyone off. Consider this:
All of us, regardless of the way we look or of our respective levels of fame are susceptible to becoming a victim of stalking. Why? Because you or I can suddenly begin to rock someone's boat without having a clue as to why. Stalkers, while often highly intelligent and able to construct elaborate plans are also disturbed individuals whose thought process bears little resemblance to the way you or I evaluate information.
There is no better situation for a stalker who chooses to start his career from cyber stalking than to read through your social networking profile and learn all about your likes and dislikes, people you associate with and your favorite hangout.
Stalking is a crime that is easy to ignore before it happens, and extremely difficult to stop once it unfolds. Make sure that a potential stalker has very little to go on when it comes to uncovering information about you.
I have mentioned cyber bullying and stalking as two reasons for keeping your personal information, well, personal. What else is there? The purely criminal element.
Identity Theft (ID Theft), a crime barely on anyone's radar before the advent of the Internet, has now become a problem du jour. With the copious amounts of data available about us via various online databases, the commission of ID Theft is now easier than ever. Further, not that much is needed to obtain a full profile about your life - sometimes, a crafty thief can do with as little as your full name and address to get all the other info they need.
Identity Theft is not something to be taken lightly. Another person assuming your identity means that they have everything they need to take over your life for a long time. They can take the money you've got, get new credit in your name and use it and in some extreme cases they can use your identity as theirs when dealing with Law Enforcement.
Victims of Identity Theft tend to have their lives destroyed, with long term consequences following right on the cusp of the main event. Make sure you don't give an thief a place to start - keep your personal data private.
What I listed above are just the basics of what can go wrong when we over share. There is a myriad of shades of gray to every situation, and that I did not list a particular issue in this article doesn't mean that it can't or won't happen.
Let's cover some of the unknown. What can you do to not to expose yourself to the unsavory elements on the Internet while you connect with other people?
- Keep your profile as private as possible. Every social networking site has privacy options that allow you to make either your entire profile or parts of it invisible to the public. Use those functions to make sure that your personal details are safe. If a social networking site you use doesn't have privacy functions, consider not doing any further business with them, or at least not providing personal data on your profile.
- Be mindful of the fact that your friends' privacy settings might not reflect yours. If your profile is private but your friend is happy to share everything with the world, there's a good potential that your personal data will eventually be shared as well. Consider asking your friends that they do not reveal information about you on their own social networking profiles.
- Do not discuss the details of your friends' personal lives in a place where the entire World Wide Web can see it. An innocent joke about a friend's common overindulgences in alcohol and pointers to her favorite hangout can be a valuable piece of information for someone who's taken an unsavory interest in that friend. Don't just think about yourself, think about what your actions can cause to others.
- Never, under any circumstances share phone numbers, addresses and government identification numbers on your personal profile. Ever. By sharing this kind of data, you are nearly asking to bring serious trouble upon yourself and others.
- In cases of social networking, gut instinct can be your best friend. If you are communicating with someone who's making you feel uncomfortable and who's giving out vibes that are - according to your gut feeling - weird, stop talking to them.
- Apply a simple filter when adding data to your profile - "Would I share this information, in detail, with a complete stranger?" If the answer is 'no', don't post it. If the answer is 'maybe', don't post it.
- Do periodic online searches for yourself. Those can alert you to the fact that you over shared something, or maybe someone else did.
- Keep your social networking account's password long and complicated. The burden of remembering that information and having to repeatedly enter it on the login screen is far outweighed by the unpleasant things that can happen when someone guesses your password and roams around your formerly private account.
Above everything else, consider the Internet for what it really is - a free for all when it comes to information gathering. There is no Internet Police that you can call on for help. Investigation and prosecution of Internet crime in real life is a difficult and time consuming endeavor. Lives do get destroyed over the 'Net. Internet encounters do spill over into real life, at times causing unbelievable amounts of destruction.
You may not be able to avoid the dangers of the 'Net entirely, but you can limit the chances of falling victim to those by ensuring that your data is not available for everyone to rifle through.
Yes. I know what some of you are thinking. "My social networking profile is all private and I only add people who I know so I should be okay with sharing personal details left and right!"
Not quite. While technology is a wonderful thing, it also has its drawbacks. Setting your profile to private is a great thing to do when you want to protect your information, but it's not going to protect you once someone gets through that shield.
There is a lot of information available on the net on how to hack into social networking profiles. Most of that info becomes outdated shortly after it's posted, because the site affected by it quickly patches up the problem. All okay? Nope. Just as sites get quicker at applying protective measures in order to ensure the privacy of their users, the curious and technologically inclined keep picking up speed at finding new ways to exploit a given site's system.
Keeping that in mind, think about what you have added to your profile. Do you have photos of your children with detailed descriptions of who's who? Did you upload a few pictures of activities that you only wanted to share with your friends, and that could cause you some undue fame if made public? Are you a giddy personal friend of a celebrity, who likes to over share intimate details of a relationship?
What's on your private profile remains private only as long as the rest of the world doesn't get to see it. People can and do hack into social networking accounts, and they do distribute what they find to the community at large. This is not limited to celebrity accounts at all, although they seem to get the most coverage on the evening news. Your own profile can be hacked, and all the data that you considered safe can be made public. I hope you never find yourself in that predicament.
The Internet is a vast mine of information, most of which can be dug up without much effort and without a fee. Don't make it easy for the bad guys to find you. Protect yourself as well as others. Last, but definitely not the least:
THINK BEFORE YOU SHARE