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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

Social networking security

23 November, 2007
Social networking has been in the spotlight for a number of weeks because of its questionable security and appropriateness in the workplace so we dispatched one of our team to become a facebooker for a week to see what he thinks.
First of all, Facebook is a well-developed professional piece of programming with a clean interface and relatively easy navigation so its popularity is doubtless enhanced by the ease with which you can get embroiled in the whole thing, exploring endless routes through regions, relationships and activities. It's a powerful networking tool that has huge possibilities.

In the early '60s, a Yale University psychologist called Stanley Milgram hypothesised that everyone is connected by no more than six degrees of separation and tried to verify this using the American postal system. Had he been alive today, he would no doubt have revelled in the possibilities that Facebook offered for testing this out. Given the small world concept developed by Milgram, Facebook opens up the chain of acquaintances to every nook and cranny of global society including cult organisations and terrorist cells. For bringing the prodigal son back into the family circle or contacting old school pals, this is unlikely to ever present a problem of course, but the vulnerable could fall prey to on-line predators.

Paradoxically, those who society generally considers to be the least vulnerable are actually subject to considerable exposure on Facebook, I'm talking about members of the armed forces. Recently urged not to include photographs of themselves in uniform, the armed services administration are very concerned that soldiers on Facebook give far too much information about their families and whereabouts that could be used against them by terrorist organisations.

The nature of Facebook encourages the sharing of information and so entering a person's profile reveals piles of data about them which they might not want to share with everyone outside their circle of friends. To overcome this, Facebook provides a Privacy menu so that access rights can be configured which is good news. However, the fact that the privacy menu access icon is in probably the least prominent position and that the configuration settings are quite complicated means that this isn't an obvious or easy step to take when first setting up an account. Indeed, when I set up an account, I went straight to the privacy menu and was baffled by what all the drop down menus actually meant. You have to use Facebook for a while to understand what the terminology refers to and its implications. Only then is it really possible to select the appropriate privacy options that you want. To test it out, I set up a second account to see how much of my main Facebook profile was visible to a "stranger" and it was soon clear that I'd got it wrong. The fact that I'd got it wrong wasn't clear in my main account because when you're logged on to your own profile, it's not possible to find out what other people can or can't see without looking at the privacy settings which themselves are not clear.

The other area of controversy with Facebook is whether it should be allowed in the workplace. The fact that there remains any debate on this is astonishing and the answer should be a resounding no. Facebook isn't so much addictive as time-consuming. You can play scrabble or dungeons and dragons with your mates, make humorous comments about their wedding photos and browse around trying to find old school friends but crucially, there isn't much you can do with it that is likely to be of any benefit to your employers. I asked a self-employed friend whether he used it at work and his reply was "You must be joking â€" I spend enough time on it at home, I'd never make any money if I started using it at work as well". Any employer that allows Facebook onto their network is asking for trouble, its as simple as that.
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