Social Networking: Protecting Your Information and Personal Brand

By Joe E
2010, Vol. 2 No. 06 | pg. 1/1

The Internet is a necessity in Americans’ lives and something that many access often throughout the day. Over 80% of students use one or more social networks and more than half log in at least once a day (Peluchette, 2008). The Internet “allows people to separate their ideas from their physical presence” (Keats Cintron, 2009) making collaboration easier between two parties.” Separation may be a city or a continent. As the number of Internet users increases, “so does the criminal usage of the Internet” according to the Swedish National Criminal Investigation Department (Armstrong, 2009).

Social networking and social interaction through technologyis adaily part of most people’s lives. Social networking sites (SNS) are:“web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connections, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site” (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). SNS are essentially templates that allow individuals to share information with others on the web, whether it's a photo, their school, interests, geographic location or instant surveys. The information can be shared publicly or with “friends” who are individuals that are allowed full access to their profile instead of just a name and photo. A profile can be populated or updated in a few clicks.This ease of publishing information is something that youth have never experienced in the past making it easy to disclose sensitive information or images, increase one’s exposure to strangers, and magnify hateful messages to a myriad of locations on the web.

Social networks allow friends and colleagues to connect with one another, however, it also allows cyber bullies and cyber criminals a lot of creativity when selecting victims. Social networks may also allow users to harass, intimidate, steal sensitive information from, or murder a victim (Atkinson, 2007). LinkedIn, a popular social network for professionals, does not allow users to “connect to people who don’t know you,” (LinkedIn, 2010) though that may be difficult depending on the number of contacts someone has or how outgoing they are online. A lack of awareness of the possible risks for sharing information in social networks or connecting to a person someone doesn’t know well creates a variety of risks to the person.

First, this paper will discuss youth in social networking sites. Less than ten years ago, youth experienced daily face-to-face interaction while in the classroom, on the playground, and while participating in after school sports or activities. Since that time, the media and researchers have expressed concern that technology is degrading social-skills as we know them. Social networking sites are unique in that they facilitate the creation of relationships amongst strangers, but also in that they enable users to have visible networks allowing for extremely extended social networks (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). The terms of service on any social network tell the user that they should only accept connection requests from those they know in real life; however, young adults are social creatures and prone to risk-taking.

Many sites do attempt to restrict age with minimum requirements; however these sites are reliant on self-reporting, meaning this information, in addition to others, is often falsified (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). Profiles on social networking sites can be set to ‘private,’ limiting general public view; however, they can also be "public," meaning anyone can send them messages, view their profile, or search for them with only pieces of information (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). One way that this common problem can be combated, is setting an age for which profiles are automatically set to private as is the case with MySpace; the site sets a minimum age use at fourteen and automatically privatizes all user profiles below the age of sixteen (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). The term "privacy" is a buzzword that sites entertain with their users, however, no matter how "private" one thinks his or her profile is, it is possible for other individuals or search engines to see their content. Many youth believe that if they do not use their real name or their actual age, they are not at risk; most people believe that security through obscurity will serve as a functional barrier online. For the most part, this is a reasonable assumption.

The most relevant concern with young adults and social networking sites is that the technology provides unfettered ease of connecting to strangers through the web which may be individuals who want to harm or take advantage of these young adults. "Unfortunately for teens, there are two groups who have a great deal of interest in them: those who hold power over them – parents, teachers, government officials, etc.—and those who wish to prey on them –marketers and predators” (Boyd, 2008).

Parents express concern "around the possibility of sexual predators and pedophiles finding and then assaulting adolescents who carelessly or unwittingly reveal identifiable information on their personal profile pages” (Hinduja & Patchin, 2008). Finding methods to regulate participation in these instances can be nearly impossible; however, it is absolutely imperative that we limit it where possible for the safety and security of the youth in question.

Ways to combat these difficult security threats can often be challenging and is forcing society to take innovative approaches that emphasize the importance of parental awareness and community support. Some are calling for, “pediatricians to advocate for thoughtful and useful legislation that has the possibility of truly protecting the health and well being of youth” (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). Legislation and legal action comes at a grave cost with the potential of consequences; this time and money could be far better spent in the area of prevention, “such as funding for online youth outreach programs, school anti-bullying programs, and online mental health services” (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). Pediatricians can also serve as a great resource for families with questions as to what does and does not constitute online victimization. “They should help parents understand that it is less the technology and more a child’s psychosocial profile and general online behavior that is influential in explaining the likelihood of online interpersonal victimization” (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008).

Parents are another element of the equation itself. Parents should place less emphasis on the use of the social networking site itself, as any use of the internet should raise the concern for risk, but rather they should focus on who, where, and what their children are discussing online (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008).

Beyond the scope of parents and doctors, is the network operators’ responsibility to limit content, create age restrictions, and to utilize user agreements that are sensitive to these issues. Operators should provide easy instructions and educational materials to demonstrate methods of online protection. The biggest concern should be for the behaviors themselves, the sense of security, and the perception of online safety. “Policy proposals that aim to reduce the vulnerability of youth to sexual victimization online should focus not on restricting access to certain types of online communication tools but instead on mental health interventions for vulnerable youth and internet safety education that apply to all types of online communications” (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008).

It is clear that the booming industry of social networking is a force to be reckoned with; what is concerning is that our youth stand in the middle ground of this war. While it is arguable whether or not they are in direct risk, one this is for certain, the consequences on social networking gone bad can be absolutely devastating.It is for this reason, that we owe it to our youth and the future to redefine the current policies to prevent future devastation. In totality, our society has an unusual relationship with the youth; we often fear them yet simultaneously seek to protect them (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008). We have rules in place to prevent loitering, drug and alcohol use, and sexual intercourse at early ages for the benefits of health and safety, yet when it comes to the perils of the online world we do little in the means of protection.

Solving this problem requires a collaboration of effort from teenagers, parents, guardians, and educators, as well as the social networkingsites, themselves.While some individuals do realize the importance of this issue, we believe it could be argued that their stance is probably reactive as opposed to proactive. “Many adults believe that these restrictions are necessary to prevent problematic behaviors or to protect children from the risks of society. Whether or not that view is valid, restrictions on access to public life make it difficult for young people to be socialized into society at large” (Boyd, 2008).While restrictions are an important part of fixing this faulty equation, we must be careful not to push teenagers further away and into more opportunities for danger.

Many social networking sites, such as Facebook, were initially only available to college-enrolled students. Their enrollment status was verified through university assigned email accounts; more recently, Facebook has begun allowing non-collegians to use their services, resulting in an influx of high school students, middle school students, and even adults to the network site.We believe that collegians face a different risk when using social networking sites: the risk of their future. Open to the public and employers, many students do not realize how vulnerable their futures are. For collegians, we recommend adding social networking education and awareness to freshman orientation programs. In doing this, students can be reminded on the impact that posting inappropriatecontentmay have on their futures.

Although social networking is a rather new phenomenon in our culture, it is important that we evaluate the risks that are associated with it. As the leaders and adults of our society, we hold the responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment for our youth. By securing websites through age restrictions and automatic privacy settings we can prevent youth from over-exposing themselves online; providing education to both parents, teens, and collegians regarding the potential threats of online networking can promote healthy internet usage and a decrease in over all vulnerability. With the constant advancement of networking and technology, we owe it to ourselves to provide appropriate risk management for social networking sites before more harm is done than good.

Social networks allow someone with an email address to upload images, name, contact information, and hobbies or work experience. There is actually nothing that examines the veracity of one’s identity other than the likelihood that this person will gain a reasonable amount of “connections” with other users. LinkedIn even states that it “has no obligation to verify the identity of any Users... or supervise the content provided by the Users” (LinkedIn, 2010) which illustrates why site owners themselves are not capable guardians to deter depraved users.

Unless someone reports an image as theirs or one that violates copyright law, essentially any user could create a fictitious profile. Moreover, one could create multiple identities, “connect” them with one another, and post content on the different profile pages to make each of them appear more realistic to others. This collection of profiles could be used for social engineering to befriend a target who may reveal personal information to a cyber criminal or could be used to assemble an online mob that targets a victim (Keats Cintron, 2009). Unless users are prudent in connecting with online profiles, they risk sharing sensitive information or increase their likelihood of victimization.

This isn’t a new method of acquiring information from users either. Over half a decade ago, Indiana University students published an article titled, "Social Phishing," which promulgated the concept of phishing migrating from your email inbox to your social network (Jagatic 2005). Phishing occurs when a party contacts you to follow a link which “actually directs the individuals to a fraudulent website or messages that appears legitimate” and asks the user to provide personal information (, 2010). In one study, Indiana University students discovered that becoming part of one’s “circle of friends” allowed a cyber criminal to “harvest large amount of reliable... information” (Jagatic, 2005). The students agreed that even though a site’s terms of use prohibit this, it will not discourage a motivated offender. It was an study which proved criminals would use social networks as a way to gain a higher level of trust so a victim would disclose personal information.

Even with the exponential increase of users on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, there is extremely little research that explores the full gamut of risks associated with their use (Higgins, 2008). Gottfredson and Hirshi’s self-control theory asserts that individuals with low self-esteem are risk-takers and likely to engage in acts that are simple, easy, and self-centered (Higgins, 2008). College students are an extremely vulnerable population because “they are not very vigilant in monitoring their personal information on- and off-line” (Higgins, 2008) making this age group a highly desired target for online victimization. Moreover, there is a strong link between vulnerability and sharing personal information with others; however, most teenagers don’t see any problems with sharing personal information on websites (Atkinson, 2007).

A lack of awareness of possible risks and the likelihood of taking risks cultivates a fallacy of safety in utilizing social networks. Just as there is no uniform method of verifying accuracy of users' real names or photographs on social networks, there is no way to verify one’s email address or identity. A cyber criminal could create a bogus Yahoo! or Gmail account to avoid detection. This is still popular, but even more clever cyber criminals are utilizing “account-free” email service providers which “accept all incoming mail, creating email boxes for every incoming message” and has “no users or passwords” (Holst). Even though there is no expectation of privacy in such account-free email services, emails are deleted after a few hours automatically (, 2010). These are particularly appealing to cyber criminals because these offer an extra layer of privacy that common email account services don’t have. Because there are no accounts, “the service provider literally has no means of identifying who (if anyone) requested an incoming message” (Holst, 2010).

We suggest that social network companies make a point of embedding online awareness campaigns that discuss the risks of sharing such personal content online, methods of vulnerability reduction, and emerging trends of risk that they or their users are experiencing with the site. An educated and informed individual will be more likely to thwart attempted exploitations before they become perils. If young adults are simply made aware of the realistic dangerous of sharing information in social networks it may have them exercise discretion in what they post online. Since social networks can not verify the authenticity of users (as seen in terms of use statements and in practice) there should be more tools to inform an individual on how to examine if the requesting party is worth adding to their circle of friends or simply someone to ignore.

Not all of the responsibility of scrutinizing members should be placed in the end user. The site owner should have safety procedures in place to avoid would-be criminals. They have the intelligence, resources, and funding to create informative materials that could make users safer from cyber criminals. Cyber criminals aspire to target users who are unaware of their method of attack and prefer less informed targets. To make users feel safer, in theory and in practice, discussing various types of threats or vulnerabilities should be a priorities for the site owners and for their members.

In most cases, it will be difficult to verify the actual identity of users because the technology isn’t available or because it’s not vital to the mission of the website. We suggest websites for young adults are partitioned or limit users accounts from the entire Internet, disposable email addresses should not be permitted on certain websites and only those with active .EDU email addresses to access certain sites (much like Facebook had when it launched). Though so many changes have occurred in the site since its creation, weare confident that students and professionals would agree that the site’s core membership was relatively safer when limited only to college students with valid .EDU email addresses (Lifehacker, 2006). Since the market influences a private company, the site opened its registration to any user in hopes of increasing traffic. Young adults and site owners will have to carefully balance between efficiency and security and do periodic risk assessments.

Although youth may be the target of education, adults and those who education both of these groups of individuals must be up to speed on the best practices and current threats.With the proliferation and ubiquity of social media technology, more criminal justice educators and professionals need to have an adequate understanding of how to use it for their benefit. Social media and government was first viewed as a way to push news updates or relevant issues in a community to citizens, but that is only one component of the many emerging benefits in social media. At the New Hampshire Social Media Breakfast, a year ago this week, John Dale of the Boston Police Department described the benefits of embracing Twitter as an early warning system:

“Using the Twitter advanced search, we can look at all the tweets in Boston in real-time... We’re not interested in just everyday messages that people put up--but when people start saying ‘What’s that smoke coming from the Hancock Tower’ or ‘Why is everybody running around Copley Place’ or something?... If two or three things come in--patterns, trends--something we should be paying attention to” (Youtube, 2009).

The need to embrace, understand, and utilize social media has come from the top down, literally. President Obama won the election largely due to money raised from grassroots donations and by reaching people through social media. Additionally, the President signed the “Open Government Directive” (referred to as OpenGov) which makes transparency in government a requirement on all levels (The White House, 2010). This directive has a handful of unprecedented benefits. For the first time ever, all federal agencies were required to have two-way communication with citizens. Additionally, citizens could make suggestions, vote in favor or against the ideas of others, and have an active voice in government through Twitter or replying to blog posts which had been previously seen as near impossible.

A fantastic example of an agency taking the lead with OpenGov is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Chairman, Julius Genachowski, has had almost half a dozen YouTube interviews hosted by the FCC,, or the WallStreetJournal. Questions submitted through Twitter, Facebook, and the FCC blog were directed to the Chairman and were answered with candor and confidence (DiggTV, 2010). The questions, too, were extremely on point and did reflect questions/feedback that real Americans have. More organizations are following the FCC’s lead.

The FCC is an agency that Americans would expect to have a certain level of transparency; however, this transparency doesn’t just pertain to business or communications agencies; it also applies to the Department of Homeland Security too. Secretary, Janet Napolitano, answered citizen’s questions regarding TSA and air security in a 20 minute interview based on questions from social media users (Department of Homeland Security, 2010). Directors of federal agencies who are role models to citizens and to other agencies are taking admirable steps forward to increase the public’s morale in their agency by sharing latest projects and developments and demonstrating a forward-leaning position to the public’s concerns.

Some critics of social media think that Twitter is a technology fad and does not provide benefits. In almost every major news related event or late breaking development in a field, tweets (Twitter posts) are published within moments of the topic’s discovery and are available to users through the Twitter search. In order for contents to appear in Google or other search engines, the contents have to be indexed (similar to putting files on your desk back into the cabinet, so next time that you open the cabinet, you see information upon request). News sources will have even more of a delay because they require (a) the attention of the (increasingly popular) national bureau or news entity becoming aware of it, (b) pursue the lead, (c) write an article on it which will be edited (censored) and (d) posted pending an editor’s approval. A criminal justice educator or professional can take Daly’s lead from the Boston Police and set up searches to see if there are any trends arise, and investigate within minutes instead of hours. In sum, not embracing social media in today’s world is comparable to a baby boomer who doesn’t read newspapers or watch television to stay abreast to news.

Social media, as mentioned earlier, provides unprecedented two-way communication between the public and government leadership. The OpenEPA website allows users to publish suggestions to the EPA, vote good ideas up, and less appealing ones down (OpenEPA, 2010). Users are allowed to place comments and the moderator from the agency will respond too. This is an important link to increase the public’s confidence in any department. The popularity of social media in government is continuing to grow as more become comfortable with the technologies or see the benefits that other agencies are noticing.

Members of the intelligence community are keen on using social media as well. Though they may refrain from posting through social media, they will certainly want to monitor social media activity. Triangulating information from multiple sources to discover emerging trends is key to early detection. Depending on the intelligence need (local, federal, a particular industry, etc.) the user can tailor their which posters they follow. In the event of a terrorist event, people have been able to tweet or text when telephone lines were jammed. Citizens in harm’s way can relay vital information for first responders to help them respond accordingly instead of approaching and unknown.

The benefits of social media greatly outweigh the potential risks, and criminal justice professionals need to be more cognizant of what they are and how to achieve those results. Agencies acting as a role model are sharing the benefits of social media with the public and the criminal justice community. Those who are comfortable with using social media technology to find information more efficiently and effectively engage the public will be in high demand in the next decade (Federal Computer Week, 2010). The technology and practices of ethically sharing information that the younger workforce can bring to agencies will help it become more efficient and save money “which is the best selling point.”

The problem with such a new technology is that agencies, including the Department of Defense(ENCToday, 2010), are still learning best practices in how to use the technology to share information as well as understanding how to educate their employees to maintain operational security (OPSEC) to protect national security (Neal Conan, 2010). There is a lot of internal learning ahead for agencies that will turn into best practices information for anyone to follow (US Navy, 2010). Federal agencies have shifted their position from avoiding social media to embracing it as a technology they should be comfortable with for public relations purposes, as well as national security issues. Police departments are also starting to collaborate on how to use technology appropriately to communicate with residents as well as monitor discussions of activity in their area. The first Social Media in Law Enforcement Conference (“SMILE”) conference will be held in Washington, D.C. this week to discuss how social media technology can be used to benefit police organizations and their communities.

Personal Experience: Protecting the Brand of Others

by Alexis Shiber

What college student doesn’t have Facebook? I remember waiting patiently for my college email account to register so that I could finally join Facebook and I also remember searching for my roommates before I had ever met them, trying to assess what they were like and our level of compatibility. By the time move-in day rolled around, we were friends, “Facebook friends” that is, as opposed to the complete strangers we actually were. Now, almost anyone can join the site, including middle school students, terrorists, employers, and Aunt Ida—each of these presenting their own risks for themselves and others. Being mindful of what I post on my online profile is no longer enough; I have to watch out for what others post about me. Although I only post pictures in good taste, someone can easily upload pictures of me, and although I have the ability to ‘de-tag’ them in which case they are no longer directly linked to my own profile, I still do no possess the ability to remove the pictures from the website on my own.

As the President of my sorority, I was chiefly responsible for the safety and well being of my members but also responsible for protecting our image as a chapter on campus. Trying to explain to one hundred independent and strong-willed women the importance of Facebook discretion was always a difficult and frustrating experience. My Vice President of Standards and I always stressed the importance of brand, image, and the idea of ‘always wearing your letters,’ (essentially meaning that if you have the words ‘Kappa Delta’ in your profile, that will immediately become associated with anything else you have on there). When this strategy did not work, we would always try for the hard-hitter: your future employer and the permanency of facebook content.

Sororities are about community service, philanthropy, scholarship, and sisterhood, but let’s be serious here: they are businesses, big businesses, and no business wants their reputation damaged. The Greek world often comes under fire for various violations of hazing, partying, etc. and these stories are typically blown-up by the media and the easy access of photographic evidence thanks to Facebook and Flickr.

At our National Convention this past year, the National Council presented a risk management seminar warning us about the dangers of social networking sites. This presentation began with a fifteen-minute slide show featuring every young woman in the room and members of her chapter back home. The organization gave two interns the task of searching Facebook, Twitter, and other websites to find pictures of us each participating in behavior that was a) illegal, b) condoned by the sorority or university, or c) both. They were successful. The pictures were horrifying images: girls wearing t-shirts that displayed offensive sayings, underage drinking, binge drinking, sexually explicit or suggestive poses, etc. Looking around the room, girls were mortified. How did they find these images? Why were they online in the first place? And most importantly: Why were these things going on in our chapters?

This ‘tough love’ was one of the most effective scare tactics I have ever seen or experienced. Within one week, my chapter cleaned up their Facebook profiles; however, one year later this is no longer the case. Similar to the way that a company may perform background checks on potential employees by searching their profiles, our chapter will search all potential new members coming through recruitment each fall to check and see if their morals and behaviors match our own. If a potential new member exhibits what we call QMB (Questionable Moral Behavior) on their Facebook, we take it greatly into account during recruitment. It is of the utmost importance that we maintain our brand integrity.


Personal Experience: Protect Your Personal Brand

by Jim Parker

As President of the Pre-Law Society for several years now, I've spoken to dozens of students, recruiters, and government agencies and there is a disconnect between what employers' due diligence procedures actually are and what students think they do. A recruiter at Raytheon's risk management department will search for candidates name on her Facebook profile or ask a student employee to do the search since they are more likely to be "friends" with the person. She said it makes candidate selection easier. She often eliminates over two-thirds of candidates merely from looking on their social networking profiles. The idea that you can set your profile to the most stringent privacy settings is useless if you have someone who will unwittingly show one's page to an employer.

The best defense strategy to this is to publish to a myriad of websites so Google doesn't just return your Facebook profile. Start a blog or be a guest blogger for one in your industry or that fits your interests. Get a personal domain so you control what's on the site. "Personal branding" is a new practice that students are seeing as beneficial to protecting their online image as well as improving their chances of networking. Transparency on the web is something that is not going away anytime soon, so personal branding experts like Dan Schawbel implore students to publish to a variety of sites so Google has no choice but to make your personally branded content appear much higher in the search results than your social network profile. Basically, follow the US Army' suggestion: "Don't post anything that you wouldn't want Yo Momma or Osama to see."

Even as criminal justice students, unless you're going to work for NSA or the FBI, it is to our benefit to publish a variety of content to the web. Recruiters at government agencies have said they don't mind if students blog about things going on in their industry. In fact, they encourage it. It shows that you are confident about your critical reading and writing skills as well as willing to share what you've learned to those on the web. By following news in your industry or recent milestones at the organization, it will make you a more appealing candidate because you are cognizant of recent news, engaged in learning, and are sharing what you've learned. Moreover, it will give you more talking points at interviews which will make you more likely to get hired and more comfortable at engaging coworkers in conversations around the water cooler.


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