Students at the University of Bristol have recently been warned of the dangers of posting to social networking websites. They aren't the first to hear these warnings, and they won't be the last.
Prof. Nigel Smart of the Computer Science Department at the University of Bristol has expressed his concern at the worrying trend of people giving up their privacy on the internet via social networking websites. He told HEXUS: "I am concerned that from some of the posts I have seen, by colleagues, students and others, that there is a deep societal problem emerging of people giving up their privacy without realising it".
There's little point in worrying about ID cards, RFID tags and spyware when more and more people are throwing away their privacy anyway. And the potential consequences are dire.
Just about anyone can read what's posted onto social networking websites like MySpace and FaceBook. 'Anyone' includes the intended audience of friends, but potentially relatives, teachers and employers too. And much of what is posted can never be deleted. I don't need to point out that Prof. Smart's fears are well-founded and that this is bad news, do I?
Anonymity down the drain
People have been posting stuff onto the web for years, though, so why is privacy suddenly a bigger problem for a larger number of people? Three or four years ago, it was all about chat rooms and forums. Both have a level of anonymity by default; you can choose your handle and only talk about what you want to, truth or lies... nobody will know.
Chat rooms are all but dead and buried now, amidst fear of sexual predators and other unsavoury types. However, forums continue, by virtue of their more topic-focused and moderated nature.
Then came what some people like to call 'Web 2.0'. On that wave of "let's pretend we've upgraded the Internet, LOL" came the social-networking websites... along with those terrible pages of drivel people like to call 'blogs'. It became cool to talk about mundane things and show other people what had been happening in your life. In essence, all the chat room goers had something to do once again.
So where's the problem in that? People treat users on their social-networking 'friends lists' just like their normal friends. They'll chat to them, share details from their lives, show them photos... do stuff friends do. People are comfortable with that. Problem is, they're too comfortable.
Bitching down the phone to someone about somebody else is a fairly common occurrence amongst friends, so socially, it's quite acceptable to do the very same with online friends, right? Yes, except unlike a phone call, it isn't private. Interestingly, you could probably get away with it in a chat room; they were essentially anonymous, but social networking is much more personal; the anonymity is all but gone. Fancy being sued for libel? How about initiating a police inquiry, or an investigation by the board of your educational establishment? It could happen, if you say or post the wrong things.
Once something appears on the Internet, it's almost impossible to remove. Within minutes, chances are a search engine will crawl it, then that search engine will cache it, so that even if the page changes, the original content will still be there, for a while, at least. Then there are archiving systems like the Way Back Machine. Once the page is on there, it doesn't matter what changes are made... it's archived. Of course, this assumes that pages are accessible by anyone, which isn't always the case, but that doesn't really matter.
It's easy to get an account with almost any social-networking site, and we've learned from chat rooms, it's easy to pose as somebody else. It's easy, then, to get added to a friend list (especially with the 'more friends the better' attitude of current social-networking sites). Suddenly, that 'friends only' stuff is pretty much public.
As these sites continue to grow in popularity, so too does the value of the information on them to parties other than those directly involved. Parents can see what their children really get up to at Uni'. Teachers can see what their pupils really think. Potential employers can profile applicants based on their online braggings and other shenanigans. While much of the content might be taken humorously amongst friends, other parties might not see it that way.
Profiling a person by their online activities need not be a long and arduous task entailing reading their boring blogs and examining all their FaceBook pictures, either. If somebody can write 1000 lines of code to scan MySpace for sexual predators, someone else can apply the same principals to profiling a single person.
Social networking users need to take a step back and think about just what they're posting onto the Internet. It'll probably be too late for a number of people, and it'll take a lot more 'victims' of the lack of privacy before most users actually start heeding these warnings. Just beware that anything posted online to your friends now, could very easily come back to haunt you in days, months, or even years to come.
My name is Steve Kerrison. I don't have a FaceBook account, or a MySpace login. I do have a blog, but it's work-related.
Update: The Slashdot effect. No, I'm not talking about site slowdown, we did just fine, thanks :). As you might have guessed, this article was featured on Slashdot. The end result is a number of comments on Slashdot with different takes on this issue, some quite the opposite of mine. So, if you're still not sure what side of the fence you want to be on, have a read at what some of the Slashdot community think. We have, of course, also got a discussion thread in the HEXUS.community, into which you may want to submit your own two pence-worth (just be careful how much personal information you give out!).