Who's spying on your Facebook profile?

BY JOEL GIBSON
Last updated 09:15 18/01/2010
facebook spy
Australian Financial Review
THE WORLD IS WATCHING: Employers, lawyers, and insurance companies could be watching your Facebook posts.
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Are you worried about people spying on your Facebook profile?

Yes, I watch what I say

No, I'm not embarassed

I probably should be

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Sports stars who complain about the omnipresent gaze of the public and media should count themselves lucky their own administrators are still onside.

It is a luxury some athletes no longer enjoy in the US, where at least three NFL franchises have reportedly taken to spying on potential employees, using a dastardly form of online entrapment known as the ''ghost profile''.

It works thus: club is considering paying large amounts of money to promising player in the annual draft; club impersonates young female fan with large assets on Facebook and MySpace, befriending player; club gains access to player's profile and pictures and searches for any sign of future headaches in the form of drug, sex or crime scandals.

They are called ghosts, a source told Yahoo! Sports, because "once the draft is over, they disappear''. Justin Smith, creator of the Insidefacebook blog, says the practice is also being used in white-collar industries such as investment banking, where good character and a sense of judgment are seen as being paramount (if not a sense of privacy or ethics).

In a cnn.com forum, someone calling themselves ''Nice Guy'' even confessed to using a similar ruse to check on a prospective nanny.

''I was very relieved to see pictures of a new year's party that seemed very tame,'' he wrote. ''Her friends seemed 'normal', along with her boyfriend. I learned a lot about her and was much more comfortable allowing her to watch my kids. What a great tool.''

What a great tool indeed.

Barely five years old, social media have reinvented personal communication, and the market leader Facebook, invented for Harvard University students to share messages and pictures with one another, boasts about 350 million users worldwide.

In little more than a decade we have gone from fumbling with mobile phones and the novelty of sending emails to multiple recipients to publishing our inane digressions to all of our acquaintances or to the world.

''Social networking'' was always an inadequate euphemism for online communities such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. And it is fast becoming a misnomer as these and other websites finagle their way out of the social and into the professional lives of users.

Spying on people's self-created profiles is now de rigueur for many employers, recruitment consultants, insurance companies and police, who benefit from the public nature of members' postings and pictures. In most cases they are gaining access to information publicly available - regardless of whether it was intended to be - and breaking no laws.

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A Sydney barrister specialising in personal injury cases, who did not want to be named, told the Sydney Morning Herald he had a client with a Facebook page to which access had been gained daily over several months as her insurer searched for evidence she was exaggerating her personal injury claim.

In Canada last year a judge in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice went so far as to order a claimant, John Leduc, to open his private Facebook page so he could be cross-examined on comments he had posted about his injuries.

The online revolution that geeks dubbed Web 2.0 has been a boon for freedom of speech and friendship. But it has opened channels for bullies, the tactless and the vengeful, ruining reputations, marriages and careers.

Headlines abound, from ''Facebook killer jailed for life'' to ''Jealous husband stabbed wife to death for changing Facebook status to 'single''' to ''Married man travels 400 miles for Facebook affair, only to discover it is a hoax''.

Kevin Colvin, an intern at Anglo Irish Bank, became an internet celebrity after telling his boss of a ''family emergency'' in New York and then turning up in a Facebook photo dressed as a fairy at a Halloween party.

''Hope everything is okay in New York. (Cool wand.),'' his boss wrote in an email circulated online.

Last week a Canberra teenager, Aubrey Agostino, 19, was jailed for making threats on Facebook against a 22-year-old man who had taken up with his former girlfriend. The campaign culminated in pictures of Agostino holding a pistol, and he was jailed for six months.

And on Tuesday the infamous ''Facebook fugitive'' Craig Lynch was arrested in Britain after taunting police since his escape in September with a series of Facebook updates on his life on the run, including a Christmas Day missive bragging ''I can't believe I made it. F-- the police.''

James Griffin, who searches social media for a living, is sceptical of claims that people care less about privacy than they did.

But he says many users have misunderstood the fine print of social media sites and posted information on networks available to all members from an entire school, university, workplace or nation.

Meanwhile, the planned ''convergence'' of search engines and social media means comments made on personal sites will soon show up as results in online searches.

The blurring of social and professional lives online means serious and growing consequences not just for personal relationships, but for employees and employers.

''It's becoming a more acceptable means of communication for people in the workplace and replacing more secure email or work systems,'' Griffin says. ''And companies aren't taking it as seriously as they should until something goes wrong.''

A US study by Deloitte found that only 17 per cent of companies have a social media policy or program, and other research suggests 8 per cent of companies have sacked employees for social media misuse.

SR7, Griffin's Sydney-based consultancy in ''online risk and reputation management'', provides services to corporations fearful for their brand, schools concerned about cyber-bullying and a training institution caught up in the political storm over violence against Indian students.

To drum up business, his analysts collect evidence of how social media are damaging businesses without their knowledge - from comments about poor management at a Crows Nest wine distributor, to people bagging their bosses. But even savvy bosses and foot soldiers are not immune to the pitfalls of cybersharing.

The law firm Clayton Utz was last year in litigation over a message sent by a former employee to a human resources manager, and was embarrassed three years ago at revelations that some of its workplace relations lawyers had set up a Facebook group referring to themselves as ''whorebags''.

And when the International Herald Tribune technology writer Thomas Crampton decided he had shared too much information and removed a post about his engagement, the Facebook robot sent a message to all his online ''friends'' saying he was no longer engaged, eliciting a volley of concerned messages and phone calls.

The number of Australian Facebook users topped 7.6 million last month; almost one in three of us is on Facebook and it is quickly closing in on the top site, Google. Include Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn and others, and social media account for about a tenth of the time Australians spend on the internet.

In November Experion Hitwise, an internet research company, predicted that social media would pass search engines as Australia's favourite online home by last Christmas.

Griffin puts the rise in eloquent context. ''It has overtaken porn.''

Although Facebook no longer promotes membership of countrywide networks, it upset many with a move towards greater openness last month, changing its default settings so that members' names, genders and lists of friends were automatically made public. It recommended photo albums and basic information be revealed to the world. Early signs indicate about 50 per cent said yes.

The founder Mark Zuckerberg, 25, has since said that if he had his time again he would re-create Facebook with that level of openness. However, Justin Smith, creator of the blog Insidefacebook, said the changes ''could have led some people to inadvertently reveal more ....'' And it was those older than Zuckerberg who were most likely to be caught out, he said.

''If you talk to a 15-year-old they are really conscious of who is seeing what they are posting, but if you talk to a 35-year-old they're usually a bit more clueless,'' Smith said.

Although social media are dominated by the young, they are proving a hit with older generations too, those in the 35 to 49-year-old bracket being the fastest growing market. For them, most of all, the once clear gap between work and play is a legal and ethical minefield that needs to be carefully picked over.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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