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Social Networks and the Issue of Privacy

Social networks and blogs can be fun and beneficial, but they can also be dangerous: too much personal information shared anywhere puts you at a disadvantage, even when its as innocent and well-intended as in the field of genealogy.


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As discussed in a previous article, a social network is an association of the relationships between individuals, ranging from casual acquaintance to close familiy ties. Virtual (online) social networks provide a common ground for people with similiar interests and/or pursuits. Social networks in genealogy have been around for over a decade: individuals and families have been able to connect with others on the Web, sharing information, photos, and developing relationships. And while these social networks can be fun and beneficial, they can also be dangerous: too much personal information shared anywhere puts you at a disadvantage, even when its as innocent and well-intended as in the field of genealogy.

This article is intended to create awareness, it is not intended to scare you off the Internet or away from social networks entirely, but does promote personal responsibility and conscious choice regarding the information you share online.

Privacy Protection & Personal Responsibility "Privacy" is a complex term, variously interpreted in different contexts and in different countries. In the United States a general "right to privacy" is assumed, if not expressly stated. The United States Privacy Act of 1974 protects against unauthorized use of personally identifiable data by any agency of the federal government. Other protections may be afforded by indivdual states, as well a various statutes and regulations at the federal and state level, which at least infer the right of privacy. When it comes right down to it, however, there is no real protection for personal information: so much information is gathered in so many places, compounded by modern technology which provides access to this information through various channels. It therefore becomes the responsibility of individuals to protect their privacy in the public domain . . . to the degree possible. While enterprises on the Internet are required to publish a privacy policy indicating the level of privacy accorded to users of a particular website, but these policies can vary greatly, again, requiring personal responsibility on the part of the individual users.

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to privacy today is the careless or naive publication of personal information by individual users of the Internet through various social networks. No law or privacy policy can control for information individuals reveal about themselves or their family, directly or indirectly, intentionally or inadvertently. This exposure added to the issue of data brokers that collect and sell private information to anyone with a credit card, some experts within the field of Internet security believe real security does not exist on the Internet: "Privacy is dead - get over it," says Steve Rambam, a private investigator specializing in Internet privacy cases. (Wikipedia: Internet Privacy).

Even so, taking personal responsibility is the greatest control available to individual users. Those participating in social networking, in all its forms might want to take a second look at how much personal information they are publishing for the world to see. Young people and novice users often post too much personal information without realizing the predatory factor on the Internet. Even practiced users may underestimate—or even deny—the dangers. There are unscrupulous if not downright criminal people who canvas the Internet looking for victims.

In addition to social networks, the blogging trend poses similar dangers. While you may think no one else could possibly be interested in or have reason to view your blog, some blog programs have features that allow anyone to scroll blogs randomly. In this way, others may view your blog who might never have seen it otherwise. Compounding the problem, most blogs link to numerous other blogs, each overly familiar and telling. Too much personal information made available to the public provides such criminals with information they need to prey on on the unsuspecting. Many such cases have come to light and may be worth reviewing.

A Cautionary Tale

Everyday, it seems, stories of Internet-related crime or expliotation appear in the news. No age group is exempt. The following articles provide insight into the dangers facing Internet users today, particularly those who engage in social networks of one sort or another, and how their personal information might be used. The first two articles are from 2007, but are as valid today as they were then, if not more so, owing to the greater number of people online and engaged in social networking:

Identify Fraud: The secrets we share with strangers, dated August 2007
Websites such as Facebook are happy hunting grounds for cyber criminals looking to steal our personal details. So why are users not being more careful? asks Annie Shaw.

Millions warned of dangers of social networking sites, dated November 2007
Millions of people have made themselves vulnerable to identity theft as well as putting their future academic and professional prospects at risk by recklessly posting personal information on the internet

Facebook Highlights Dangers of Social Networking, February 2009
Even though Facebook tries to ensure the personal accountability of all its users, it is relatively easy for users to create fake profiles.

Not Among Friends: The Dangers of Social Networks, February 2009
For many people, social networking has become as much of a daily routine as brewing coffee and brushing teeth. IT administrators dislike it and cyber crooks depend on it.

Social Networks and Genealogy

The field of genealogy is fertile ground for those seeking personal information. Sharing information is what genealogists do, and today they do much of it online. The following articles might be of particular interest to family historians and seniors.

Grandparent Scam, March 2009
Police are warning the public to be vigilant against the "Grandparent Scam," also called the "Emergency Scam." This scam has been around for years but seems to have become more popular in the past year or so.

5 Family History Scams to Avoid, January 2009
Unfortunately, even in the friendly field of family history the old adage "Buyer Beware" must hold true, and the occasional genealogy scam trips up even seasoned genealogists. The best defense is knowledge.

Genealogy: Avoid common scams while you seek and share your family history online, November 2006
Before you start digging for your family roots online, check out the following guidelines to help spot and avoid common genealogy scams.

Internet Safety for Seniors
The internet creates excellent opportunities for seniors to meet people, conduct business, plan travel, access records, stay in touch with friends and family, and support hobbies and entertainment interests. You can learn how to take advantage of the opportunities without falling prey to predators so you can have peace of mind when you go online.

[In addition to social networking, this article cautions seniors about answering quizes and surveys "that often ask invasive questions about your health, wealth, and personal lives." It also contains useful links to related topics. This informative article is worth reading, whether you are a senior or not.]

Suggestions for Protecting Your Privacy

The most imporant thing you can do is take personal responsibilty: be aware the issues and make "consicious" choices. It is up to every person to determine how much personal information they are comfortable in sharing—every person is different. Our greatest concern should be with protecting what we do not intend to disclose. For example, we may want to review our personal information (and that of our close family members), asking the following questions—this is certainly not an all-inclusive list, but a starting point:

What information could be damaging in terms of identity theft?
What information, in the wrong hands, could put you or your family at risk?
What "indirect" information is being published (house numbers, children's schools, daily routines, etc.)?

In addition to this and the various suggestions offered in the above articles, the Consumer Guide to Online Privacy, published by the The Consumer Privacy Awareness Project, summarizes the issues and provides detailed instructions how to manage your privacy settings in various online services. While this may seem tedious, the correct privacy settings can help.

Somewhat off the subject of social networks, another artilce, "How to Remove Personal Information from Internet and Public Data Sources," published on Squidoo, is something of an eye-opener. The article appears to have been written by someone not entirely familiar with the English, and the suggestions may seem like more work than it's worth, but it contains good information with links to additional resources.

While managing your privacy settings and being informed is important, nothing can control for the information we personally reveal. A popular cartoon showing the family pet at the computer reads, "The Internet is the only place where a dog doesn't have to be a dog." When posting personal information, consider who is on the receiving end. Pay attention to what is revealed directly and indirectly, and encourage family members to do the same.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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