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The downside of online social networking

04 October, 2007
By Allison Orr

Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook are being mined by direct marketers and identity thieves for the information contained in the personal profiles.

The activity known as “phishing” is being given a boost via these sites.  Phishing is where an email is sent to millions of addresses posing as a trustworthy entity in order to fraudulently gain sensitive information such as usernames, passwords or credit card details.  According to Andreas Maumhof from TrustDefender Labs, the success rate of these types of attacks are about 5 per cent, but if the email includes some personal information, which can be easily gleaned from online profiles, the success rate goes up 80 per cent.  When it is targeted in this manner it is called "spear-phishing".  Marketers are also using the information from personal profile sites to customise their sales pitch.

People are increasing their risk of identity theft online due to their desire to have a large number of online friends, says Nigel Phair of the Australian High Tech Crime Centre and author of Cybercrime: The Reality of the Threat.   "Young people particularly, equate their status to the number of friends they have: "I have 163 friends but you've only got 120'," he said. "Yet they may never have met these people in real life or have any real friendship with them."

Another downside of social networking online was highlighted recently when Facebook was subpoenaed by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for failing to provide adequate safeguards from sexual predators for young people using the site.  This action came after investigators set up fake profiles of 12 to 14 year olds and were very quickly contacted by adults seeking sex.  They communicated their concerned to Facebook but were apparently ignored.

By contract, one LibDem MP in the UK is putting his "friends" network to good use on Facebook.  Steve Webb is the MP in charge of that party’s general election manifesto, and according to an article in the UK Telegraph, he is inviting his more than 1900 online friends to offer their thoughts on policies.  "We have the potential to switch people back on to politics if we do our politics in a new and distinctive way," he said.

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