Social Networking Sites: A Wealth Of Personal Info

Social Networking has become a way of life for millions of people. But a recent security glitch on social networking giant Facebook, which exposed private account information, has its users on edge. So, how safe is your information on social networking sites? Allison Keyes speaks with tech guru Mario Armstrong to find out.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Social Networking sites are more than a timesaver or a tool. For many people, they are a way of life. It seems like every day there's a new site where people can post pictures and chat or follow their friends, and the number of users is growing as well.

The world's largest social network Facebook, estimates that it has 400 million active users. But, a recent security glitch, exposing some private information about its users, has left people wondering just how secure their privacy is on the Web.

Joining us to talk about that is technology commentator Mario Armstrong. He hosts the technology talk program, Digital Caf�, on NPR member station WYPR.

Welcome back, Mario.

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Technology commentator; Host, "Digital Cafe"): Thanks, Allison. Thanks for having me in.

KEYES: So what is going on with Facebook? They have this whole loophole. They were putting people's private stuff out in the street. What was exposed and have they fixed it?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: To answer the question, they moved on it right away and did fix it, but the problem was private chats between individuals were exposed to many people, just to complete strangers, so that's the loophole.

KEYES: So not cute.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No, not at all. I mean if you and I were having a private chat we would expect that information to be private, not to be shared with others that could see that information.

KEYES: And didnt they just - they just did something else where it opened up things like your birth date and your home town and your photos and your friend list to everyone as some other sort of new policy?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That's right.

KEYES: I mean what's going on over there?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: So here's the issue, they had a developer's conference and they make all of these announcements and changes and modifications to the site and one of those changes was manipulating and moving around your privacy settings and adjusting some of these settings to reveal a little bit more information.

Most of this I believe is targeted to help them monetize Facebook better. If I know more about you than I can better target ads to you, and that's one of the ways that Facebook makes money. And I think that's where we're seeing this problem because now it's so convoluted even people that want to set their privacy are confused now on who gets to see what and how much information is being given out. And so it's a very big mess for them right now.

KEYES: 'Cause just because Allison likes "Star Wars" and Al Jarreau doesnt necessarily mean that I wanted everybody - aw, its too late now - but I didnt want everybody to know that I liked that.

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KEYES: I mean and I get that it's privacy. It's the Internet. They dont really work well together, but wasnt Facebook started under the premise that you could control who could see things?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes it was. And you and I should be friends on Facebook because I like the same things.

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Mr. ARMSTRONG: So that wouldnt be a bad - I mean a "Star Wars" fan? That's great. But the point is youre absolutely right. I mean when you think about the beginnings of Facebook it started off as a college campus type of thing and you actually had to have a college email address in order to even join. It had to end in .edu. So it's branched out, it's grown and its more commercial than it used to be. And now, it seems, with 400 million users everybody or at least a good majority of people at some point has had a Facebook profile or a Facebook presence.

KEYES: So doesnt this start to kind of change the whole fundamental definition of what privacy is and your ability to decide whether or not youre going to share it? I mean if you can get on some website that says okay, nobody can see anything - oh, wait, except that.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Right. Its such a challenge right now. You know, I deal with so much email coming in from folks that are just really confused and they feel like they have to use something like Facebook or other social networks because it's so ingrained in our culture. But, you know, one of the things that I think people really need to revisit is the term friends. What I tell people as a tip, I say look, would you give this particular friend the keys to your house while youre away to maybe water the plants or take care of your animal? And I think that helps to really limit their thinking. I think the word friends has become so overly used that now we're like losing track as to what the intimacy really was about and therefore, you probably wouldnt worry too much about what youre sharing online because they really are your true close-knit friends.

KEYES: Right. The people that have 5,000 of them.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Right.

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KEYES: But speaking of friends, there's also a website that I was reading about the other day called Formspring.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh yeah.

KEYES: What's this new place and who's on it?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. So Formspring.me, it's this new website that's really focused more towards kids it seems, and it kind of just like came out of nowhere. Parents are still, they're going to be listening like right now like what? What's the name? I never heard of it. But theyll be shocked to find like 28 million or so people are like using this thing. Part of that notoriety, if you will, is not all good. I mean one of the reasons why it's become really known is because there was a 17-year-old in New York name Alexis Pilkington who actually committed suicide and they are saying many of the things that were on this particular site, they think, had something to do with how she was feeling about herself and for, you know, committing suicide...

KEYES: Because from what I understand, it's not a very friendly place.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No it's not. It's a place - see here's the thing, its a place where people can make comments about you, you know, anonymously. And so, think of how maybe you used to be ridiculed or maybe teased in school and, you know, typically that had to happen face-to-face or at least you heard about it through the rumor mill. Well now, remove the physical interaction of being seen and being visible and you can imagine what kids may be saying about other kids because they can be anonymous about it.

KEYES: I read something that some kids are actually changing their behaviors. There was a girl in some article who said people have said bad things about a pair of leggings so she stopped wearing them. I mean is this a little sinister?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It's all about who uses it and how they use it.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: In this case, with this particular site, you can send someone a message - or a question or a comment - but that user, that person that receives that, that information is still private until that person decides to reply to that comment or question, does it get published to the public. So it's kind of weird, right? Because youre like well wait, if kids are feeling bad about certain things being said about them, why would they reply to them so that the rest of the world could see what the comment was?

KEYES: Right.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Totally guessing here, but I do know as kids today growing up, we have to really be educating our kids more on being digital citizens because whether its this site or another one, this type of activity is consistently happening online.

KEYES: Mario Armstrong is a technology commentator and host of the "Digital Caf�" on member station WYPR. And you can follow his tech blog at marioarmstrong.com. He joined us from Baltimore, Maryland.

Thanks a lot, Mario.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Allison. Be safe out there.

That's our program for today. Im Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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