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Friday, January 18, 2008

Party photos: MN teens suspended

More than a dozen students at a Minnesota high school were disciplined recently for party photos in a social site. They were suspended from sports and other extracurricular activities for allegedly posting photos in Facebook in which "they are either in the company of those consuming alcohol or holding alcohol themselves," KARE-TV reported. "The ACLU says there are concerns about schools mining through student profile pages but that what happened at Eden Prairie isn't a surprise." ACLU executive director Charles Samuelson told KARE that the students' rights weren't violated in this action because of the school's stated policy of zero tolerance for drug or alcohol consumption by students participating in sports or extra-curricular activities. If those students end up going to University of Minnesota-Duluth, social-networking-related policy goes a step further, KARE reports. UM-Duluth's athletic department "requires its student athletes to sign a statement saying they understand that if they choose to create a MySpace or Facebook profile, that profile is subject to review at any time, for any reason." The University of Minnesota is Facebook's second-largest network of users in the US, KARE adds.

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'Grooming' by phone too

Online safety news that appeals to fears is counter-productive, so I hope the US news media will approach cellphone safety more intelligently than they did predation on the Web. But, as with the Web, parents do need to be aware of the downsides to this other very useful communications tech too. CNN reports that, according to law enforcement, cellphones were used by a teacher and 14-year-old student in a case in which she allegedly developed the relationship with and had sex with the boy on school grounds. So many of us get our kids cellphones so we know where they are and they can call us when they need us. Certainly we will and should keep doing that, but we need to know there are other uses for those phones, from very rare uses such as the case above to teen pranks and bullying that can be very destructive in their own way. "A New York mom, who requested anonymity because her kids don't know about her surveillance, said she uses software to regularly check her children's e-mail and online activity on the home computer. But she also gave her kids cell phones that have texting and photographic capability. Asked why she doesn't scrutinize the phone the same way she snoops on the computer," she told CNN she hadn't really thought about it. Just something to think about and discuss with our kids. A discussion point might be "How to recognize grooming." The CNN article also goes into the subject of "grooming" - predators' insidious process of gaining a child's confidence overtime, citing the work of Betsy Ramsey, who "has spent 20 years working with child and female victims and chairs the DeKalb County Domestic Violence Task Force in Georgia."

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Where online kids' worries lie

A quick snapshot from a UK researcher halfway through her cyberbullying study: Well-known psychologist Tanya Byron told the Oxford Media Convention that "children are more worried about being bullied in cyberspace than any threat from paedophiles," the Financial Times reports. On pedophiles, she quoted one girl as telling her, "We kind of know who the creepy people are and what they say, and we kind of ignore them." The research shows that, "although children were adept at exploiting the ignorance of their parents about the internet and gaming, many would prefer to be able to talk to their mother or father about their online lives," the FT added. None of this sounds any different from what we're seeing and hearing on the western side of the Pond.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

US social networking: Fresh numbers

Here's a fresh snapshot of where and how much Americans are social networking. Hitwise just announced its latest figures, finding that - out of Hitwise's group of 53 leading social sites - MySpace averaged 76.35% of all US visits last year. Next came, and with 12.57%, 1.24%, and .87% respectively. As for the number of visits in a single month (December), MySpace received 72% of them, Facebook 12.57% (with a 50% increase in traffic over December '06), and Bebo 1.09%. There were huge traffic gains outside the Top 3 too, though:, popular among teens and founded by teens, had the biggest "gain in market share" last month, reports, with a whopping 407% increase over December 2006. Facebook and Disney's popular kids' "social network" increased 51% and 48%, respectively.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Malicious widgets

You've heard of malicious Web sites - sites people go to by mistake which upload malicious software to their computers. Well, now social networkers need to be aware of malicious widgets. [Widgets are those mini applications people use to add fun and functionality to their profiles - e.g., a slide show, a music playlist, a map of where they've been, reviews of favorite books, a personal avatar, code that lets people call your cellphone from your profile, a blood alcohol content calculator (citing Andonomics data, Forbes reports that, "on Facebook alone, users have installed nearly 13,000 widgets approximately 765 million times").] "Secret Crush" is an example of a malicious widget - a rather mild one that's an indicator of what's to come, experts say. "Disguised as a legitimate 'Secret Crush' request" that tells a Facebook user that another user finds him or her attractive, PCWorld reports, what it really does is "secretly install an adware program made by Zango after it has been successfully downloaded." PCWorld says some 3% of Facebook's nearly 60 million users have downloaded it and, of course like all widgets, it's viral. "The Secret Crush program also tries to lure people who download the file to pass it along to other Facebook members they know." This is called "social engineering," coming up with just the right words, whether scary ("your account has been compromised") or compelling ("check out this cool party video"), to trick people to click or download. Malicious widgets are especially insidious, because "once people have been pushed into installing an application, it's easier to ask for more information to get them to finish the install," PCWorld points out. Phishers and malicious hackers too are increasingly relying on social engineering to steal money and identities. Which means it's increasingly imperative to help our kids develop their mental filters so they get better and better at detecting and blocking malicious social engineers.

Another example on the social Web is a worm on Google's Orkut social site (very popular in Brazil) apparently designed by a non-malicious hacker to show users how social networking can be "dangerous" even if they don't click on something. What it does is send some Orkut users "an email telling them they had been sent a new scrapbook entry - a type of Orkut message - on their profile from another Orkut user. They only had to view their profile to become infected by the worm, which added them to an Orkut group" called "Infected by the Orkut Virus," PCWorld reported in another article. There there's the latest security story: "Using a hacked MySpace profile, online criminals are trying to trick victims into downloading a malicious Trojan Horse program by disguising it as a Microsoft update, PCWorld also reports. Finally, here's the UK's VNUNET's look-ahead on "cyber-gangs."

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Video sites' traffic way up

Nearly half of US Internet users have been to sites like YouTube, and use of video-sharing sites has grown 45% just in the past year, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. What's more, the BBC cites new Nielsen figures showing that some video-sharing sites' traffic has doubled since the US writers' strike started at the end of October. "In September and October, Crackle[.com] enjoyed an audience of 1.2 million users, which doubled to 2.4 million," the BBC reports, and "YouTube's audience was up 18% in the two months after the strike started." Not surprisingly, it's youth who are driving the upturn, with 70% of people under 30 using video-sharing sites, Pew found, with more and more creating as much as viewing. "Some 22% of Americans now shoot their own videos, with 14% of them posting at least some of that video online," the BBC adds. Here's's coverage, and here's a Los Angeles Times editorial citing other studies with similar findings.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

MySpace & 49 attorneys general: Agreement

Two years of negotiation between MySpace and the US's state attorneys general culminated in an announcement today that they'd reached an agreement on "Key Principles of Social Networking Sites Safety." Not all that I heard as I listened in on the press conference is new (MySpace has implemented dozens of safety measures and programs in the past year, including a 24-hour hotline for law enforcement). But a few new social-Web safety developments were announced, and the agreement is a victory for collective thinking and action appropriate to this medium and against the litigation that the attorneys general had been threatening. Here are the new developments I heard, some useful:

  • Agreed-upon principles for social-networking safety that may actually lead to consensus on industry best practices (e.g., high responsiveness to abuse reports, rapid deletion of underage profiles and blogs, cooperation with law enforcement, etc.). We hope other social sites will participate, as the attorneys general said they're encouraging the sites to do.

  • Rapid response & other measures. MySpace's announcement that it would implement a new customer-service protocol for better responsiveness to abuse reports, as well as new technology to enforce the site's minimum age (14), default privacy settings for 16- and 17-year-olds (already in place for 14- and 15-year-olds), and new technology to detect and delete links to porn sites from MySpace users' profiles.

  • A proposed email registry that would allow parents to send MySpace and other participating sites their children's email addresses, which would be blocked when the kids try to set up accounts with them. This has limited value, if I heard it right, since it's so easy for kids to get new, free email addresses at so many sites (e.g., Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, Gmail) which they can use without telling their parents.

  • A technical task force to explore age and identity verification. Among the participants will be Internet companies, law enforcement, and online-safety organizations, I heard. This is good - it puts the onus for exploring this concept on a broad spectrum of stakeholders, not just one social site. Judging from what I heard of the hour-long press conference, though, there is still little demonstrated understanding among the attorneys general of the privacy risks involved in verifying minor's ages and identities. They're right that the technology isn't rocket science. The problem is what the technology needs in order to work: a nationwide database of children's ID info that verification technology can scan. Federal law protects US children's privacy, to the extent that even your child's school has to obtain your permission to print his address and phone number in a directory just for your school community. It's a good law. Identity thieves love getting their hands on minors' ID info. That's why there was such an uproar when a security breach in the UK jeopardized the personal information of half the population and "virtually every child in Britain" (see this item). A possible alternative is verification of all adults on the social Web, but there are privacy issues there, too.

  • Social Web-wide. The attorneys general present at today's announcement - Connecticut, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania - are asking other social-networking sites besides MySpace to join the task force and make certain safety measures standard. This reflects a growing awareness that these issues are at least Web-wide, if not worldwide (understandable, though, since these are state attorneys general, not federal law enforcement). There are so many spots on the social Web based in other countries if kids really want to go into stealth mode and beyond the reach of any industry best practices the US might establish.

    Texas's was the only state attorney general not to sign the agreement. In a letter to MySpace founder Chris DeWolfe, General Greg Abbott wrote that signing would be "misperceived as an endorsement of the inadequate safety measures contained therein," CNET reports. Nothing short of a "reliable age verification system" would protect children, he wrote. He may be right about the problem, but not about the solution. It'll be interesting to see if the new technical task force can come up with a killer-app that can satisfy attorneys general, privacy advocates, and parents all at once!

    Here's an interview about today's announcement with MySpace/Fox Interactive chief security officer Hemanshu Nigam, conducted by CBS News technology analyst and co-director Larry Magid.

    Within a couple of hours of the press conference, there were more than 500 news reports on this in Google News. Here's a sampler: The Associated Press, the Financial Times, and the Los Angeles Times. See also a comprehensive analysis by Adam Thierer, senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington.

    Related links

  • "Social-networker age verification revisited"
  • "Sex offenders on MySpace: Some context"
  • "Verifying online kids' ages: Key question for parents"

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  • 'Teenage hell': What to do

    What is it going to take to convince teens of how important it is to think about the impact mean behavior can have online? For example, just annoyed with a high school friend, three teens "placed an ad in [the 15-year-old's] name soliciting sex with men, listing his home phone number," the San Jose Mercury News reports. They also somehow "hacked into his MySpace profile" and changed it to say he was gay. People answered the ad at his house, reaching his is sister and mom. "Mortified, angry and distraught," the boy dropped out of school. The article cites the view of some school officials who say they're not sure the Net is increasing the amount of bullying, but rather that it's providing a "paper trail." Young people just don't realize that they're not as anonymous as they think they are. And that's exactly what can help them think before they're mean online. For example, the Mercury News refers to the shock felt by "some students at one San Jose middle school who created a MySpace 'slut list' of 23 girls and asked viewers to submit comments. Within 36 hours the site was shut down, and the culprits discovered." As for the boys who took out the abusive ad above: Working with police, officials at their school them found them out. They "were tried and sentenced to probation and community service. They also had to write an essay about the pain they caused."

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