Facebook Safety

Facebook is an excellent tool to stay in contact with friends and family, and also to meet new people, however we quickly forget an important childhood lesson—”don’t talk to strangers” – “but they are my friends you may say…”

As Fb (Facebook) relies on people’s openness to share their information on a semi-public forum, some dilemmas are posed. There is a strong need for humans to be connected to each other and Fb seems to take advantage of that need. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether it’s reconnecting with distant relatives or keeping track of close friends without having to duplicate information, or even to see what happened to that high school sweetheart, the strong interconnectivity of the internet cannot be denied or ignored.  Thus it is easier to learn to adapt and live with, rather than find ways to live without this valuable tool.

The uses of Fb are far reaching. A Cape Town organisation has successfully located numerous missing children by posting their pictures on their group site. The effect that Fb is having on our society is still not clear. In terms of research, Fb is still new and there is currently a large amount of studies being undertaken on various aspects of the impact of Fb. For example, many corporate companies have implemented policies to deal with social networking forums such as Fb, MSN (another social network –Windows Live Messenger) and the like, owing to reduced productivity in the workplace. The current research on the effects of Fb on family life, work and mental health will be interesting. The problem is that research takes time and the publication of these findings too takes time, and Fb is still relatively new.

So you have taken the time to create a nice full profile on Fb. You have even included details as to where you live, work, your contact numbers and interests. You then are going on holiday and you post that on your status update something like “Ten days before holiday to Thailand!” The problem is that not only does everyone know that you will be out of town, they also know personal information about you and possibly your family. There would most probably be some pictures of your house on Fb in your photo albums and suddenly you have made it really easy for a would be burglar to have an option here. People even post that they are missing their husband while he is away. This can be a security risk too.

Before going head first into the Fb world, I would ask myself some questions:

1. Do I provide personal information and photos etc on my profile?
2. Am I really friends with all the people who have access to my Fb profile?
3. Do I trust the people who can view my profile and its contents?
4. Do I know how to use the security settings on Fb?

Who would you let into your home after hours? Who would you let into your home and allow them to look at your videos, photos and weekly plan? The information that you put onto Fb can easily become public and is available 24 hours a day.
Information such as where one works, while may be interesting for friends to see, can have a negative effect. The more information that you make available about yourself the more information a would be predator can get. For example, a con-artist could easily get more information about you by pretending to be a close friend when telephoning your business for example. By already having quite a lot of your personal details, it becomes easier to convince your reception or a co-worker for further information, such as your other contact numbers and so on. Now the con-artist could impersonate you when contacting some of your service providers as he/she already has your personal numbers, work numbers, email address and possibly your home address. This is the information that is often used to verify you to your service providers. A con-artist could contact a common service provider such as a telephone company and request that they want to change the postal address details. The operator from the service provider may confirm your address details to the con after he/she has presented other personal information such as birth date, contact numbers and work address. Even if the service provider does not accept the information that the con provided, they will tell him/her what information they require before they will be able to divulge or make changes to your account profile. Thus, the con can contact other service providers and between a few, and with some clever communication can get the missing information. Each service provider asks different security verification details and it is likely that the con will get through to at least one service provider to whom can provide further information, such as your home address. Now you are not only at a financial risk, you may be at physical risk too.

Included in this fraud is attempting to predict passwords for example by having personal information about you. A common hacking tool is called “social engineering” whereby a hacker psychologically manipulates situations to gain further information about you to fill in missing gaps that he/she needs to con you. For example, many people use their child’s name as their password on their computer, or their birth date, or any easy to remember information. By creating a trust relationship with you, you may without knowing it, be giving possible passwords/access information to a hacker as he/she attempts to create a psychological profile of you.

If you lose your credit card or your identity document, Fb becomes even more unsafe. If the person who finds these personal documents becomes a friend of yours on Fb (or if your profile is open to the public), then the balance of your personal information is available. Cases of fraud regularly occur in the work environment whereby a fellow co-worker is involved in fraudulent activity either directly or indirectly via a partner. In the work environment, information such as identity numbers, home phone numbers and possibly addresses are fairly easily available in many companies. It is also common for co-workers to be friends on Fb, the rest is self-explanatory.  The point is that, the more information there is available about you, even more information can be obtained from that very information. Thus, fraudulent activity becomes easier with more information. Phishing (technique of fraudulently obtaining private information)  is a common occurrence that takes many forms such as emails from legitimately looking companies attempting to update their database, and requiring you to confirm details via email or telephone for example. The more information there is available about you, the more openings there are for fraudsters to gain entrance into your life. The possibilities are endless and the methods used to con people too are endless.

Psychologically deviant behaviour is a concern for public forums. We need to be aware that child friendly websites have been known to attract not only children but paedophiles too. Facebook has a minimum age for membership of 14 years of age. Paedophilia is a concern for young teenagers and I would not rule this out as a concern for parents just because “every one’s child is on Fb and therefore it must be safe”. If this was true then crossing a street would pose no risks as everyone is doing it… . The point is that parental involvement is always important. I am not saying that one needs to be like a hawk, but what I am saying is that teaching your children about the risks and role-playing possible scenarios that they may be faced with, is an important part of any new activity that has risks. For example, the same way a parent needs to oversee a child when learning to swim (and thereafter for many years of swimming), the same applies for internet based activities. Excuses such as my children know more than me and they teach me about computers is a common complaint. It is easy to get advice and that does not mean that you need to be a computer specialist, but as a parent you already have the knowledge of what would be acceptable behaviours for your children, so it’s just the vehicle that you need to adapt to. This can be fun too.

Facebook provides a perfect place for voyeuristic behaviour (the sexual interest in or practice of spying on people, usually while they are doing personal actions). Once a Fb user lets another Fb user see his/her profile by accepting a friendship, the profile remains open to each party unless either the friend is removed from the profile (“unfriend”- Oxford word of the year for 2009) or privacy settings are applied. Now if your profile is open to your friends, these friends can view your photos, videos and other information at any time and as many times as they want. This activity goes unnoticed, so if one of your friends looks at a particular photo album of yours once or 50 times, you would not know. Why is this important you may ask? Well many people provide holiday pictures of themselves and some even include pictures that may be sexually appealing to a would be viewer of your profile. Does this mean that one should only show pictures of themselves with full winter clothing? No of course not, it’s merely to be aware that if you have a stack of friends and you also have a stack of photos for example, there may be people obsessing over these photos to a degree that may bother you if you were aware of this obsession. It is about awareness, and I am sure many people use Fb as a meeting forum and thus some attractive pictures are status quo for such people, however, there are people who derive a benefit from your media and this may pose a risk to you and/or your family. As we see how easily celebrities can become idolised merely from excessive exposure and there is much research regarding this topic. Continuous viewing of people’s media creates familiarity without the actual interpersonal relationship developing. The effects of this can be seen by simply observing how people respond to seeing someone in real life to whom they know from TV or who is famous.

A recent violent murder in Pretoria (South Africa) whereby a schoolgirl was found dead is believed to be linked to someone she had met on Facebook. It is difficult to trace such a link and that is one of the dark sides to social networking. There have been numerous incidents of people being attacked by “friends” they met online. One such incident involved a student from Virginia (USA) who was murdered by someone she met on MySpace (another online social network). Cases like these are on the increase. One possible reason for this is that it is difficult to get background information about new online friends and there are many people who lie about their profile information. Awareness of the risks is important.

What can one do to reduce possible negative effects of social networking? Earlier in the article, four questions were posed. Some further proactive steps include:

Become familiar with Fb’s Privacy settings. They allow for each user to create personalised privacy controls. For example, it is possible to allow some of your friends to view your photo albums, while other friends cannot see these albums. Thus you can partition your friends into groups, possibly – family and close friends, not so close friends, and then past friends and acquaintances. It is easy to set this up and easy to select your friends into your new groups. Then the next time you upload your new photo album just select which groups of friends you want to allow access to view it. You can also choose directly from your friends list, but it is easier to pre-group your friends. To find these settings look to the top left corner of your screen and select “account settings” then choose “privacy settings” and then “profile information”. A menu of all your account settings will be shown. For photo albums, just select “photo albums” menu and there you will find a customisable option. Customisation is available for any of your information fields on Fb. It is good practice to go through all the available settings even if you only change a few. For example, if you type a person’s name into a Google search, Fb results too will come up unless you explicitly change that setting in Fb. Thus, some settings are already set to open access, unless you change it yourself.

Having set up your personalised privacy, check that your login credentials are also secure. Passwords that are linked to your personal information such as children’s names, favourite colours, and birthdates are easy to hack. A mixture of numbers and names is stronger. Special characters such as the ones where you need to press the shift key also add strength. Another method to use is not a password as such but passwords, or a “pass-sentence”. Even a short sentence such as “I like Fb!” is harder to hack than a single long word. Password hacking software relies on the commonly used words first and then words with numbers and most struggle with sentences.
When creating an account on Fb, it asks for your email address as your username. Most people leave this as their username. This also poses a risk as in your profile information which is available to your friends (and possibly to the public), it is likely that you have put your email address there. Thus for a hacker, he/she already has half your login details and now just needs your password.

Observe your own Fb use. There are many new cases of people who become psychologically reliant on Fb. New terms such as “friendship addiction” have been used to describe some of the symptoms associated with this problem. Social networking sites while beneficial to many older adults by reducing feelings of isolation, may create an unhealthy obsession for teenagers and adults. This is particularly true for vulnerable groups such as women or men who obtain self-esteem from relationships as well as recovering addicts (substance abusers, shopping addicts etc). There are people who actively seek to take advantage of vulnerable people and attempt to exploit their weaknesses for personal gain.
A group on Fb called “Facebook Junky and proud of it!” describes the criteria they believe to be a deciding factor to gain entrance to their group. The group believe that if you are checking your Fb profile more often than your email; if you are more interested to see what is going on with your virtual friends than your real world friends; if you would be psychologically disturbed if Fb was shut off for a few days; and/or if you could use the terms obsessive or compulsive to describe the way you use Fb, you have met the admission requirements for this group. Surprisingly there were only 74 members of this group at the time of writing. The point is, time spent on Fb is time away from other parts of your life. Finding the balance is the key.

The impact of social networking is only just being understood and it will be some time before adequate research delineates the pros and cons of this activity and its effects on our lives. It is without doubt that many new cases of unexpected crimes will be blamed on Fb in the near future. However, Fb is the tool and we are the users. We all know the saying “a bad mechanic always blames his tools”, the same applies here, we cannot just blame Fb after the fact. We know the terms of use and need to be responsible and remember our childhood lessons about the world that we live in. The internet only changes the channel but does not change the people.

Written by
P. Baron
(March 2010)