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The Social Network – Be on the Safe Side!

In Features this week, Yulia Cherdantseva gives us some top tips for staying safe online.

The Internet offers a broad variety of activities: communication, purchase of goods and services, entertainment, general web-surfing and many others. But one of the most popular activities on the Internet in recent years has become Social Networking.
There is now such a wide range of social networking websites: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn and dozens of others. The choice is endless for tech savvy University students. The number of social network users is growing exponentially every year. Facebook alone, which is currently leading the industry of social networking, has more than 500 million users worldwide and half of them are logged on to the website every day.

Social networking has evolved into the main way of communication in the 21st century and brought new opportunities. But new opportunities came at a price; new, previously unknown threats and vulnerabilities. The main concern on social networks is privacy. But who can actually misuse your private information online.

1) Platform providers. Despite privacy settings some providers may have access to private data.
2) Third Parties. A third party may gain access to personal data by breaking into a social network website. Personal information may simply be available to them due to a lack of attention to privacy settings.
3) Other Users. Other users may maliciously use data posted by an author or they may publish information or upload photographs which portray the author in an undesirable manner.

Another aspect of social networking which deserves consideration is identity theft. A malicious user (or ‘misuser’) may steal an identity through the theft of login credentials and use these details to conduct certain actions on the victim’s behalf (open bank accounts, get credit cards, loans, state benefits and documents such as passports and driving licenses).

Whilst it may be easy to brush these warnings off with an ‘it will never happen to me’ attitude, there have been a number of recent occurrences of identity theft. In Spain in 2009, well-known celebrities found profiles opened in their name on a social networking website with comments which could have had a negative effect on their reputation. Whilst in Greece, a man created a fake profile of his ex-girl-friend featuring nude photographs of her. In the UK, a businessman found a fake profile created in his name on Facebook. The profile contained false information about the victim’s sexual orientation and political views.

You also need to take care when you post comments on facebook about your workplace or the University. In 2008, Virgin Atlantic airlines dismissed 13 employees for posting negative comments about the company’s customers on Facebook. Similarly, in 2009, a nurse was reprimanded for posting photographs of the intensive care unit where she worked on Facebook.

So here are just a few quick tips for maintaining your privacy and security online.
1) Use all available technical tools to protect your privacy on a social network. Be familiar with the social network privacy rules and use privacy settings knowledgeably. Information about privacy settings on Facebook is available at http://www.facebook.com/privacy/explanation.php. Also remember to reset your password regularly.
2) Never allow strangers to gain access to your sensitive information such as full name, address or phone number.
3) Be careful with the information you are posting about yourself. Consider how this information portrays you, as you may be look back and regret it!
4) Choose your friends. Accepting someone as a friend will mean they have access to your private information.
5) Avoid posting offensive comments about other people.
6) Be aware of the social network-related policies within your workplace and University.
7) Protect mobile devices that you use to access social networks.
8) Be careful when accessing a social network through public access locations. Never save your credentials on public computers.
9) Be aware of phishing emails. Remember, website providers would not ask you to send sensitive information by email. Never follow links in an email – log on to a networking website by typing in a URL.

The main advice for secure social networking is to be careful about the actions you undertake online and use social networks in an intelligent manner. Remember that any social network is a public place. The idea of information sharing is a cornerstone of social networking, but this great idea can very easily be misused.

It is a challenge for everyone to find an individual balance between socialisation online and privacy. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to protect yourself and to ensure your privacy. Be aware. Be safe. Happy networking!

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