A social networking site for everyone – but at what costs to privacy and security?

In recent years, Web 2.0 has assimilated itself into our daily lives with a vengeance, and no other trend within this movement has made more of a statement than social networking websites. First were the general sites – Friendster, MySpace and Facebook – which by now we are all familiar with (unless, that is, you have chosen to live under a rock). In today’s world, however, you can also find the social networking site that not only lets you connect with old friends, but you can hone in on a very specific group of individuals. There are social networking communities for dog lovers (Dogster), flirts (Flirtomatic), Christian churches (MyChurch), car enthusiasts (CarDomain) and even Goths (Vampire Freaks), to name just a handful. Because of the interconnectedness of the Internet, the sentiment has become: If you have a hobby or interest, we have a community of people who share it and want to meet you.

One of the newest of these sites is Gurgle.com, which is aimed at parents and parents-to-be. The site includes everything from the best baby-making positions to what one can expect during and after pregnancy. It takes the previously used format of message boards to ask questions and share experiences, and expands that service to also include pictures of new babies, stories about parents’ experiences and other personal data about the users. Some of these babies will have information and pictures posted online before they are even born! Now that is what I call a child of the technological generation.

While I am a strong proponent of social networking and community building, this proliferation of social networking sites – all of which require some degree of personal data exposure – raises serious issues of privacy. And while the major sites like Facebook and MySpace have made privacy a top priority, smaller sites may not have the funds or technical wherewithal to develop the high degree of security needed to keep user information out of the wrong hands. In the case of Gurgle, my mind immediately goes to news stories like this one, reported by AP last week, in which a 23-year-old pregnant woman was killed and her unborn baby forcibly taken from her body. Gurgle offers potential killers a perfect opportunity to befriend a victim and gain the victim’s confidence and trust before striking.

Maybe this is an extreme way to look at the situation, but a majority of Americans do not take the necessary precautions to ensure personal data is kept private on these sites. The major websites now allow users to select whether their profile is visible to everyone, only select groups, or only friends. At the same time, however, most of these sites’ default settings allow everyone to view a user’s profile and the user must go into account settings and manually change the privacy levels. Without an upfront warning alerting users to this, many may have no idea that any other member of that site can see everything they post, including address information, pictures, educational background and employment information.

As with much of the technological development of the last decade, the technology itself appears to be moving much faster than the policy regulating it, and users’ privacy rights are only now starting to catch up. It’s a tricky balance to find, especially when most users are unaware of how vulnerable these sites can make them to predators. Users see the sites as ways to meet new people with common interests and close their eyes to the “techy” aspect of maintaining privacy, assuming the companies running the sites have the users’ best interests in mind. As we now know from the experiences of such companies as Bank of America and Citigroup, even the largest and most “secure” companies can have databases hacked into and personal data taken.

The best solution is for users to educate themselves about how information is posted online and who can view this information, and then set their account to the desired (i.e. high) level of privacy. This education should become a top priority of social networking sites, with information provided up front when a user first creates a profile.

Jessica Vitak, a 2008 graduate from CCT, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Media & information Studies. She spent six years in Washington, D.C. working as an editor for PR Newswire, the global leader in news distribution and monitoring services, and later as a research intern at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Pew, she coauthored two major reports on online privacy and teens' gaming habits. Her master's thesis at Georgetown looked at relationship formation and maintenance on the social networking site Facebook, as well as the potential relationship between online activities and offline consequences. She is continuing her focus on online communication technology at MSU.