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Online Social Media: An Open Door to Your Privacy?

From Twitter and Facebook to LinkedIn and YouTube, social media sites have become popular tools that millions of people use to communicate with friends, family, and coworkers. But in an age where savvy hackers can use this information to invade privacy and potential bosses can uncover incriminating photos from youthful spring break adventures, experts prescribe caution when posting personal information online.

That leaves social media users in a difficult predicament — to share or not to share.
“Everything on the internet is recorded in perpetuity, therefore it's very important to govern what one says and does on the internet at all times,” according to Krishna M. Sadasivam, a Media Arts & Animation instructor at The Art Institute of Tampa (a branch of Miami International University of Art & Design). He asserts that finding a comfortable balance between sharing updates and photos with loved ones and protecting personal information is key to protecting privacy online.

This need for caution is becoming a major issue as social media sites work to strengthen privacy settings, many of which allow other people to see information until it is restricted manually. “Facebook, Google, and other social networking sites limit privacy as part of their default settings. It's important for users to go into their user settings to edit their privacy options,” adds Sadasivam.

To assist users and assuage fears, sites such as Facebook and MySpace also give users the option to not display personal information such as birth date, email, phone number, and employment status. For those who choose to include this material, Facebook has an “only friends” setting that allows only accepted “friends” to view it. But even this level of security cannot prevent one of those friends from saving a photo to their own computer and posting it elsewhere.

Sometimes individuals only find out about violations when they Google their own names and are surprised by the results. Because web crawlers and search engines collect information on a continual basis, they find and retain information about even deactivated accounts.

The Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray, in a recent TechLab column, wrote of the hazards of posting personal information online. “Your Facebook page is probably listed with internet search services, so Google, Bing, and others have copies of your picture, friends list, favorite pages, and such. Luckily, Facebook lets you shut down future indexing. To find the off switch, click the Settings menu, then Privacy Settings, then Search.”

In a recent article, Bray also urges caution when using popular applications such as Mafia Wars or Farmville. “You’re providing a lot of basic personal data to (the companies that run the games). In addition, if a friend uses an application, he shares information about all his friends, including you.”

Then there are the hackers — people with the knowledge and time to dig around and unearth private information that individuals might have thought was shielded from public viewing.
The ability for resolute hackers to gain access to personal information on social media websites was brought to light in 2005 by Harvey Jones and Jose Hiram Soltren, two students from MIT. Together, they were able to gain access to over 70,000 Facebook profiles, then published the results of their experiment in the article “Facebook: Threats to Privacy.” The study explains that many privacy issues are created by social media users themselves. “Users disclose too much,” they state in the paper, “and third parties are actively seeking out end-user information.”

Beyond the potential for old high school frenemies to rediscover you, social media sites can be a real disadvantage to job hunters or employees. Bosses can easily search for information on potential candidates and current employees, so be careful with postings, says Micheal Swank, Associate Dean at The Art Institute of Houston-North.

“No employer or potential employer needs to see that much about anyone’s life,” he states.
A June 2009 survey of 2,600 hiring managers showed that more than 45 percent said they’d used social networking sites to seek information on job candidates. “Of those (managers) who conduct online searches/background checks of job candidates, 29% use Facebook, 26% use LinkedIn and 21% use MySpace. 11% search blogs while 7% follow candidates on Twitter,” according to the survey.

The survey also found that 35% of these managers decided against hiring a candidate based on information uncovered via social media sites. suggests that social media users keep their profiles clean of incriminating photos and gripes -- and act selectively in accepting a “friend” request.

For users concerned about the privacy of their photos and personal information, there is one solution that will protect them -- don’t join social media sites. But in a world where social media is quickly becoming a major form of networking and communication, joining may be unavoidable.

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