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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Big Brother Is Reading Your Blog

These days, social networkers are concerned about protecting their privacy, not only from predators and scam artists, but from nosy employers and campus authorities

Social networker Shannon Sullivan was getting worried. Like all of her friends, she was spending much of her free time chatting, blogging, and sharing photos on the social-networking site, MySpace.com. But soon, the 14-year-old high school freshman had divulged so much personal information online -- from her address and phone number to her birth date and names of friends -- that she no longer felt she could surf safely. So Sullivan did the unthinkable: she suspended her MySpace profile.

"I was putting myself in harm's way," says the New Jersey teen, recalling the flurry of news reports in recent months of sexual predators and identity thieves prowling social-networking sites. Some of her friends share those concerns, she says. "With all these stories coming out, that's scaring people."

DISGUISES AND FICTIONS. It's not just the prospect of predators and swindlers that has the social-network set alarmed. University officials and campus cops are scouring blogs and sites for tips on underage drinking and other student misbehavior. Corporations are investing in text-recognition software from vendors such as SAP (SAP) and IBM (IBM) to monitor blogs by employees and job candidates.

In response, users of social sites have come up with a host of creative ways to evade what they consider threats to safety or privacy. Sullivan, like many others, opted for a different site. Others are resorting to fictionalized or disguised entries, and many are stepping up use of features and software aimed at protecting privacy.

Despite mounting privacy concerns, popular social-networking sites MySpace.com, Facebook.com, and Xanga.com account for an increasing portion of Internet visits -- about 4% as of January, says Web consultancy Hitwise. That's up from less than 1% a year ago. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 19% of teens from the age of 12 to 17 blog, compared with 7% of people over the age of 27.

BAIT AND SWITCH. Usage patterns are changing swiftly. A couple of examples of the newest users: A college professor in North Carolina has scanned Facebook.com profiles to determine which students to accept into his class. Penn State University campus police used The Facebook, which only grants entry to people with .edu addresses, to identify students who rushed the field during the October Penn State vs. Ohio State University game, during which two police officers were injured.

The participants had formed a special "I rushed the field" group, complete with names and pictures, says Tyrone Parham, assistant director of campus police. Parham and his team ended up issuing warnings to more than 50 people in that group. "They were surprised -- they thought it was a private Web site," he says. "But we just did a couple of clicks, and here was everybody's picture."

Fighting fire with fire, some students search sites for evidence of lurking undercover campus cops or resort to subterfuge. At George Washington University, political-communications senior Kyle Stoneman and his buddies baited campus police by billing an innocent get-together a "Death Party" on the Facebook.com posting. After the police came calling, the group had switched the name to a "Love Party," promising guests hugs and kisses for showing up, Stoneman says.

GETTING DOOCED. Corporate bloggers are also coping with increased vigilance by bosses. Getting fired for blog entries is so common now that it's come to be characterized by the term "dooced." Dooce.com, a blog kept by one of the dooced, has seen its traffic more than double over the past year, according to Web site ranker Alexa. One networker who asked not to be identified says she regularly peppers her entries with fiction so she can avoid being identified by her employer.

The less-rebellious users are simply stepping up use of privacy controls, long supplied by sites such as Facebook.com. While users had the ability to implement online features to block school administrators and staff from viewing entries for months, "people are starting to get them more aggressively recently," says Chris Kelly, Facebook.com's chief privacy officer. Kelly was hired for this newly created position last fall.

Entrepreneurs are hoping the backlash will encourage users to leave Facebook.com or MySpace.com for new sites marketed as safer and more private. One such hopeful is YFly.com, a site for teens that opened its virtual doors on Feb. 3. "The response has been overwhelming," says co-founder Drew Levin. "The time couldn't be better, as parents are looking for a better place for their kids to go" (see BW, 12/26/05, "Move Over, MySpace").

"REPORT THE CREEP." The site has backing from Tom Petters, whose company owns Polaroid, and celebrity support from none other than Nick Lachey, formerly of boy band 98 Degrees and the Newlyweds TV show. The site features a "report the creep" button on every page, which can be used to report a user who appears to be an adult (adults aren't allowed on the site, except by special permission).

Complaints are referred to a team of teen volunteers from each high school represented on the site. The team confirms -- or refutes -- that the person who has been reported is actually enrolled at its school. All violators are immediately reported to the police. Sullivan, who left MySpace.com, has a page on YFly.com now. Over one week of use, she got 24 of her friends to join the site, she says.

Another teenage social network, Tagged.com, is planning to go one step further. It's assembling a teen site squad that will answer newbies' questions about safety. It's also putting together an adult advisory board consisting of law-enforcement officials and educators who will help come up with more safety-related features.

CREATING NEW TOOLS. In the next few months, Tagged.com will also launch an automatic scanner of information being posted to the site. If the scanner software detects that users are trying to post a phone number, for instance, it will conjure up a pop-up, asking posters if they really want -- and should -- post this information. "We do need a balance between allowing teens to be teens and overprotecting them," says CEO Greg Tseng.

The desire for beefed-up Net armor is giving rise to new social-networking software products and services. Roger Sullivan, vice-president of the Liberty Alliance Management Board, a digital-identity industry consortium of 150 companies including Oracle (ORCL) and Time Warner's (TWX) America Online, says some member companies plan to use software that enables users' personal Web pages to display different information depending on who is viewing them.

Another effort focuses on authentication services. The idea is to create a service that would help people you contact online know you are who you say you are, says Sullivan. Social-networking sites "open us up to identity theft and privacy issues like never before," he observes. Fortunately, there's a host of solutions to help the growing ranks of social networkers cope with the risks.

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