The site recently upgraded its security features with much fanfare and some excellent reviews. Perhaps Facebook was hoping to quash any further criticism regarding privacy concerns, with this move, and for a short while at least they succeeded. Users are now able to assign specific security settings to individual friends, among many new features. For example, if you had some “questionable” photos from your weekend with college friends you didn’t want your boss seeing, it was no longer a problem.
Cue the bug!
Shortly after the announcement, Facebook encountered a glitch that caused a breach in the security settings for users’ photos, exposing some private photo sets for all users–including a few of Paris Hilton’s. According to the AP report, the glitch was caused by Vancouver hacker Byron Ng, who designed a code template that granted access to private files on user profiles, even to those without permission.
The problem was fixed within an hour, but the question remains: is anything online truly private?
The subject is
hardly new, but it seems more relevant than ever. There are endless social networks, professional networking sites, photo-sharing sites, video-sharing sites, social bookmarking sites, and microblogging platforms upon which we disseminate personal information. How much of ourselves do we really want to share online? And do we ever consider the risks involved?
Even high-profile users of Facebook upload photos and other personal information, trusting the site’s controls to protect them–all the same, Ng was able to look at personal snapshots of Paris Hilton and her brother Barron. This trust is widespread, but will it ever come back to bite us?
I think there are various levels of how much information we are willing to share. Following Facebook making the news with privacy concerns last fall, I divided Internet users into four categories. Perhaps the best approach is to pick a category we feel comfortable with, and try to maintain that level.
Level One: Bunker Dwellers
A good friend of mine refuses to sign up for any networking site at all, calling them “a stalker’s dream.” This is probably a bit of a paranoid way to look at it, but she is not alone in this line of thinking. Another friend was extremely upset with me one day when he discovered he was featured (blurry, and in the background) in one of my MySpace photos. He did
not want a single image of himself to appear on the Internet, ever. A bit of wishful thinking in this day and age, I think, but I of course complied with his wishes and took the photo down. Bunker Dwellers do not participate, and cannot be talked into doing so. Trust me, don’t bother, I’ve tried.
Level Two: Lurkers
The Lurker may occasionally log into social networking sites, but does not share their own information. Everyone has at least one MySpace or Facebook friend who signs up for a dummy profile; this way they can join in the fun of connecting with people without having to share information they deem too private. They aren’t quite as anti-networking as the Bunker types, but still aren’t comfortable with putting too much information out for the world to find. Unlike the Bunker Dweller, the Lurker is definitely interested in following the online conversation, but not quite
ready to join in themselves.
Level Three: Dabblers
The dabbler may have a Facebook or MySpace page (definitely not both), and keep a resume on LinkedIn, but they probably don’t have more than one or two social networking profiles, and probably don’t share more information than absolutely necessary. They might have a Flickr page, for example, to share photos with friends, but probably don’t tag
photos with their full name. The dabbler is open to social networking on principle, but rather than use it to reach out to new people, they may play their cards closer to their chest and interact mainly with contacts they already know “in real life.” In my entirely unscientific analysis (ie, just my opinion), I’d say that a good percentage of folks on social networking pages can be classified as Dabblers.
Level Four: Open Books
To use myself as guinea pig, I qualify as an Online Open Book. Maybe it’s dangerous, and I know my Dad sure doesn’t like it, but I share a lot of my life online. I keep several blogs, and profiles on just about every site I linked to in my introduction, some public, some private. My del.icio.us page reveals that I am interested in entertainment and technology news. A quick scan of my Twitter page reveals that I like watching the Red Sox and the Patriots, link often
to my blogs or articles about technology and business, and go out every Thursday night with my girlfriends. You get the idea–I’ve elected to share my life with any interested party. Perhaps it’s put me at risk, but the rewards have far outweighed the negatives–at least thus far.
The beauty of social networking is the simplicity. Uncomfortable with putting too much info about yourself online? Then…don’t. Or, if you’re itching to participate, set up camp online but make use of all the protections available to you. Just remember, no matter how many protections there are in place, the risks will always be there as well, so play smart.
Everyone squawking about the Facebook breach may be a person who took the risk of posting one of those questionable photos of themselves, knowing that their employers monitor their page. With the lines between our personal and professional lives blurring more each day, keeping our heads when navigating our online spaces is ever more important.
Do you ever feel overexposed?
(Portions of this article first appeared on the CustomScoop Blog.)