2011-02-25 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Social Networking Privacy
Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer


AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER In recent years, the use of social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter has increased dramatically, as consumers from all age groups have flocked to communicate and connect with friends and family across the Internet. While these sites can provide a fast and fun means of communicating, there is a growing concern about the potential privacy issues associated with social networking. There have been instances of user information being shared with marketers and Internet tracking companies without the user’s consent, as well as an incident in which key privacy settings were automatically changed without adequate notice, leaving many users’ information exposed to the entire network by default. Fortunately, there are a number of precautions that can be taken to help ensure that social networking can be both enjoyable and private.

First, and foremost, before joining a social networking website, take a few minutes to read the sites’ privacy policy to determine what privacy settings are available to users. Most of the major networking sites feature strong privacy settings that allow users to limit who can view their online profile and who can contact them. Most sites will allow you to choose which information you would like to share and which users or groups may view such information. You may choose to share your information with the entire network of users, with those that share a social or business relationship, or with specific users. Those concerned about privacy will often restrict the ability to view their profile to “friends” only, which can greatly decrease the risk of privacy intrusion. If you have any questions about how to configure your privacy settings, you should contact the sites’ customer service department for assistance.

In response to user complaints and increased media attention, in the past year most networking sites have significantly enhanced the ability of users to control and customize privacy settings. However, it is important to remember that anything you post on your profile, including written messages, digital images, or videos may appear on the Internet even after you delete them. Any content posted on your profile can be copied and reposted on other websites, or remain in cached databases. Once information is posted for public view, you cannot retract it. According to privacy experts, a good question to ask before posting anything to your profile is, “Would I want my employer or grandparent to view this?” You should also consider whether an image or written comment would be something you would want a future employer to view. An increasing number of employers now use the Internet to learn about potential hires. In fact, according to a December 2009 report commissioned by Microsoft, over 75 percent of those employers surveyed reviewed online information pertaining to prospective candidates, while 70 percent stated that they have rejected applicants based on the results of such reviews. In addition to employers, keep in mind that any unflattering or embarrassing content posted online may also be viewed by landlords, college admissions officers, or potential business clients.

When deciding what personal information to post on your social networking profile, it is best to err on the side of caution and provide less information. Most sites will ask you for your birthday when you sign up. Since identity thieves often seek out this information, you should consider withholding it entirely or only making it available to “friends.”

If you do choose to post your birthday, privacy experts recommend that you only include the day and month. It is highly recommended that you refrain from posting your home address, phone number, or email address on your profile, and, if you do choose to post this information, be sure to use the sites’ privacy settings to allow only trusted users to view it.

Those new to social networking sites may receive several invitations to connect during the first several weeks of membership. Many of these requests will come from friends and family; however, you may wish to verify the identity of the person sending a request before accepting it by calling your friends or sending an e-mail to their personal accounts.

If you receive a request from someone that you do not recognize, it is best to simply reject the request.

You may also receive offers to use third-party software applications, such as online games or personality quizzes. Before agreeing to participate and running the application, you should read the privacy policy to ensure that your information will remain private. Lastly, you should be aware that social networking sites often update their privacy policies and settings, so it is important to stay informed as to the latest policies.

There are resources available if you are interested in learning more about safe and private social networking. The Privacy Rights Clearing house website (http://www.pri vacyrights.org/) features a wealth of information on networking safety. You may also want to consider visiting the New York State Attorney General’s website at: http://www. ag.ny.gov/ and clicking on the “Social Networking Sites” informational sheet posted in the Resource Center section of the site for more tips and information.

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