Thursday, January 20, 2011

You and social media – into the prowlers’ lair?

The emergence of social networking sites has put a totally different spin on how humans meet, chat, strike friendships and business deals. Sites like Facebook and Twitter™ have revolutionirised human interaction with their applications connecting people, a majority of whom are strangers, all over the world. With just six years in existence, Facebook has over five hundred million users worldwide and more than half of those users log on every day. This means that at any given day more than two hundred and fifty million people are interacting through this medium.

I, like the other millions of social media addicts, am not in less than five platforms. I have friends I might not even meet in this lifetime and in countries I might not even visit, not unless the Lotto Powerball™ comes through. Like other religious users of these sites I have logged on and updated my status to keep those in my network in the know. I have joined groups of common interest and shared with whoever cared to know information on work and other personal stuff. I have found people who like things I like and because at times such stuff seems weird we have resorted to make a clandestine sect, mind you all of us are strangers to each other. In these groups or sects I am free because I can express myself to people who understand me and share my likes BUT just how true is that? How safe am I with these strangers and how safe is it to share personal information in these sites and chat rooms? With hackers; scammers; pedophiles and other psychos out there, is social networking not tantamount to playing in the prowlers’ lair?

Hacking, bullying, indecent assaults and scamming are fast becoming synonymous with social network platforms. Yes, just when you thought it was safe to tell your virtual “friends” all about your life or to post sensitive information, someone out there is waiting to use that information against you or worse gain access into your profile.

Over the past few months I have witnessed lewd and vile comments being set up as people’s status updates, all of this by so-called ‘friends’. In one recent incident a print screen image of a social site showed a lady’s profile where she was on her lingerie inviting men over and giving out her contact numbers. The lady claimed a jilted suitor hacked into her profile and updated her status. According to social media expert, Peter du Toit of Social Media IQ, hacking through some one’s profile is possible and happens frequently. “This is because people have weak passwords and unsafe habits over the internet”, he said. Some sites like Facebook have created a safety centre where users can learn more about safety procedures as well as dealing with compromised (hacked) or phished accounts.

Another problem in social platforms is the issue of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is rife among teenagers and is now on the rise with adults as well. Just recently I have witnessed individuals being bullied in one platform. A group member being verbally abused by members of the group, the same members she thought of as ‘friends’. Du Toit cites a case in the UK where an 18 year old became the first person to be jailed, for 3 months, for death threats made on Facebook. The teenager had been bullying her victim for four years since they were at school together. In a February 2010 study by the Cyberbully Research Centre, an on-line centre dedicated to the study of the use and misuse of technology as well as online aggression, of more than four thousand respondents it was discovered that more than 21% have been bullied in social media platforms (25% female and 17% males). A separate study by the same centre found that with young people cyberbullying victims were almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide compared to youth who had not experienced cyberbullying. This is just an iceberg of the kind of abuse of these platforms.

When internet chartrooms first surfaced, abductions and indecent assaults accompanied them. These chartrooms have become hunting grounds for pedophiles and other prowlers. The recent case of the Benoni Mxit rapists was just déjà vu for me. It just showed that it is not safe in these platforms and the bad thing is that you just don’t know when you are going to fall victim.

In a different case of scamming, a Johannesburg businessman was referred, by a Facebook “friend”, to a “foreign business consortium” with a lucrative business deal. The deal which involved tanzanite stones from Botswana turned out to be hoax when he, as a South African “investor” was scammed out of fifty thousand rands.

According to web and digital media legal expert, Paul Jacobson, people who have been victims of prowlers in the social network platforms do have a legal recourse. “Hacking for instance is covered by the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act. So depending on the nature of the affront if the person is local you could lay charges with the police where appropriate, sue for defamation or report the offending person to the social network itself.

A lot of the social platforms as well as civil society organisations have devoted time and resources into helping users to be on the alert. Below are just some of the few tips to help you evade the social network prowlers:

· Friends: Do you really have two thousand friends in life? So don’t put emphasis on the quantity of friends but rather on the quality. Accepting and inviting just about everyone to be your friend exposes you to prowlers.

· Birth date and place: Just because they ask for it, it doesn’t mean you have to put it in. While it might be nice to hear from Facebook well-wishers on your birthday, you should think twice before posting your full birthday. American researchers have recently discovered a way of reconstructing some one’s ID number by dual’s birthday and place of birth place so imagine what hackers can do. Rather than remove your birthday entirely, you could enter a date that's just a few days off from your real birthday.

· Home address: Publicizing your home address enables everyone and anyone with whom you've shared that information to see where you live, from psycho exes to thieves. Opening up in this way could have negative repercussions: for example, there have been instances in which burglars have used Facebook to target users who said they were not at home.

· Long trips away: Don't post status updates that mention when you will be away from home. When you broadcast your vacation dates, you might be telling untrustworthy "friends" that your house is empty and unwatched.

· Illicit photos: By now, you should know that racy, illicit, or otherwise incriminating photos posted on Facebook can cost you a job (or worse). Even deleted photos could come back to haunt you. It has been recently discovered that Facebook's servers can store deleted photos for an unspecified amount of time. A Facebook spokesperson has admitted that someone who previously had access to a photo and saved the direct URL from their content delivery network partner could still access the photo.

· Location: rather than saying where you having a drink with friends just say “having a drink”. There is nothing more frightening than having a total stranger walk up to you and greeting you by your name. Giving out your exact location exposes you to pedophiles and all prowlers out there.

· Gifts and other applications: Clicking on just about every link or application that your “friend” sends you or invites you on exposes your computer to viruses and other phishing software. So be careful of ‘gifts’ and downloading of applications.

According to Cyberbully research Centre, if you are bullied there are steps you can take. First, it is important to keep all evidence of the bullying: messages, posts, comments, etc. If there are ways you can determine who exactly is making the comments, also document that. Second, contact the service or content provider through which the bullying is occurring. For example, if you are being cyber bullied on Facebook, contact them. If you are receiving hurtful or threatening cell phone messages, contact your cell phone company to obtain assistance. Along those same lines, familiarize yourself with the Terms of Use for the various sites you frequent, and the online accounts you sign up for. Many web sites expressly prohibit harassment and if you report it through their established mechanisms, the content and/or bully should be removed from the site in a timely manner. To be sure, some web site administrators are better and quicker at this than others.

Also, please be careful not to retaliate – or do anything that might be perceived by an outsider to have contributed to the problem. Do not respond to the cyberbully except to calmly tell them to stop. If they refuse, you may have to take additional actions. If you are ever afraid for your safety, you need to contact law enforcement to investigate. They can determine whether any threats made are credible. If they are, the police will formally look into it. The evidence that you have collected will help them to evaluate your situation.

Yes we all agree that social media has taken human interaction to another level but then it has opened up the Pandora box. These platforms can be nasty and also show you their anti-social side, it seems. Play with your eyes wide open.