10 Things You Should Know About Safer Social Networking

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2010-03-25

10 Things You Should Know About Safer Social Networking

It's not often that a tech story pops up relating to syphilis. According to researchers in the U.K., they can draw a link between an upswing in syphilis cases and increased Facebook use that has resulted in more strangers meeting up offline.

For its part, Facebook says that the claim is downright ludicrous and using the social network will in no way increase a user's chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. That's probably true. And it's more than likely that users who connect with friends on the social network won't need to worry about getting syphilis.

But the story highlights two things that are center to the social networking world: security and privacy.

Security and privacy are extremely important issues to both consumers and companies that log in to social networks and communicate with others. As recent history has shown, malicious hackers are doing their part to capitalize on user desire to access social networks by stealing sensitive data through phishing attacks and other scams. And those threats just keep coming.

That's why we've decided to give a little refresher course on things that users need to know as they continue to jump feet first into the social world. Here is what they are:

1. The security threats are real

Although some folks scoff at the security threats posed by social networks, they are real and they can do significant damage. Security problems related to social networks might not compare to those found on Windows, but they are still troublesome. Security firm Sophos recently witnessed an uptick in malware resulting from social networking use. It's a real issue. If users want to maintain security going forward, they need to be more aware of the potential flaws that exist in social networks. If that doesn't happen, even more trouble could erupt.

2. Employers aren't too fond of social networking

The enterprise isn't very inviting when it comes to social networking. The issue at most firms is that users are attempting to access social networks from corporate computers. Because of the aforementioned security issues and the inherent trust some folks have in social networks, malware can break out across a corporate network. That's precisely why employees need to be more careful accessing social networks in the workplace. If trouble erupts, it's the employee who could face the most trouble.

3. Phishing scams galore

Malicious hackers love that more and more people are joining social networks. As millions of people around the globe connect with others and continue to receive e-mail requests from their favorite social networks, malicious hackers have found a way to capitalize. They simply look at the design and wording of a message sent by a social network, mimic it and send it to peoples' e-mail addresses. If a person clicks a link in the e-mail and is redirected to a malicious site, the hackers can potentially steal sensitive information. Going forward, users need to be more careful about what they click on in e-mails. There are some telltale signs that an e-mail is a phishing scam, and users need to be aware of them.

4. Privacy isn't guaranteed

It's nice to think that as users communicate with friends on social networks, all of their information will be kept private from others. But the reality is, that doesn't happen. Social networks are becoming increasingly less private, due to user desire to share more content than ever before. Years ago, the Web was a place of anonymity where users would rarely share anything beyond their usernames. Today, their lives are out in the open for anyone to see. For example, Bing features real-time Facebook status updates and a feed of tweets from Twitter. If a user is saying something they don't want folks to know, putting it into a status update or tweet is probably not the best place for it.

Practicing Safe Social Networking

5. Privacy settings matter

Luckily, social networks, especially Facebook, have done a much better job of allowing users to secure their profiles so peering eyes can't find out what they're up to on a social network. Facebook's privacy settings are commendable. Although the default leaves much to be desired and some folks never change those settings, Facebook's tool allows users to keep just about everything private from those who aren't friends. It even helps users decide what friends can see. More social networks need to follow Facebook's lead and offer strong privacy settings for folks who want to secure their anonymity.

6. It can be good or bad for companies

Although most companies aren't too fond of employees accessing social networks without the proper security protocols in place, social networks can be both good and bad for organizations. On one hand, social networks can be fantastic marketing opportunities for firms that want to promote a brand through social means. At the same time, companies can be subject to the same security issues affecting individuals. Facebook groups, for example, have been hijacked in the past, leading to all kinds of potential trouble.

7. Spam is still present

Recently, Twitter announced on its corporate blog that it has successfully cut down spam on the social network to just 1 percent of tweets. It's a commendable job. But any Twitter user knows that spam is still far too present on the social network. Of course, Twitter isn't alone. Spam, originally the bane of e-mail, has quickly made headway in the social space as spammers realized that most folks are moving to social networks to communicate. It's not a good thing. As spam filters help to limit annoying e-mails, spammers have found another place to annoy us.

8. They're not all equal

Although there are a slew of social networks on the Web that boast something for just about anyone, they're not all equal. When it comes to security and protecting user privacy, there are some social networks that lead the pack and others that leave much to be desired. Realizing that, users need to be more careful about the social networks they join. Luckily, Facebook is close to leading the pack on almost all security and privacy issues. But some social networks aren't so proactive. As a result, they should be avoided.

9. Stick with the bigger ones

With that in mind, it's a good idea for users to stick with larger, long-established networks. Although every social network started as a small, unknown site, today, the market is much different. For the most part, only the larger social networks can be trusted with a user's private information. That doesn't mean that users should only stick with MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. But it does mean that if a site is extremely small and few people have heard of it, it's probably not to be trusted. It's better to wait and see if it gains popularity before private information is shared with the site and its small community.

10. The fear of location

As social networks have matured, location has quickly become one of the most desired features. But the debate over location-based social networks is intense. Proponents believe that it adds a viable element to social networking by helping users communicate with friends who are within a particular distance. Critics of location-based services say that by offering an exact location, it tells the rest of the world where a user isn't. And if they share their home location, it won't take much for someone to find out where they live. I tend to agree with the critics. While I see value in location-based services, it's just too much shared information. I don't want all my Twitter followers or Facebook friends to know where I live. I also don't need to tell folks where I am at every minute with a location service like Foursquare.

Simply put, some anonymity goes a long way. But as social networks have matured, we've lost that anonymity. And our security is feeling the effect.

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