Virtual Fun with Real-World Consequences
With widespread usage of Web-based social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace at schools and colleges of all sizes, we’ve entered a new era in the evolution of stalking. Proactive campus safety professionals need to alert youth to the many unintended negative consequences of openly exchanging personal information.
A young man sitting in the back of the classroom notices an attractive young woman a few rows down. The only information he has is her first name. From this information, he is able to log onto a specific Web site and download a large amount of personal information about the young lady.
Specifically, the Web site tells him her full name, where she is from, her personal interests, her employer and where she lives. Additionally, he is able to determine what establishments she frequents and could easily create a “chance” or “coincidental” meeting. While this young man’s intentions are only to meet her, the release of this same information would have much darker consequences if he were a sexual predator. In that case, she can look forward to harassing phone calls, threatening E-mails and unpleasant confrontations in the near future.
As people become more interconnected through technology and innovative means of communication are developed through the Internet, scenarios such as the above are becoming commonplace.
In the early days of Web-based communication, chat rooms were the primary source of networking and instant messaging. Blogs soon followed, becoming an attractive feature to both teens and adults.
A 2005 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project entitled Teen Content Creators and Consumers found that more than half of the teens connected to the Internet have created online content. In the past five years, the proportion of eight- to 18-year-olds with computers in their home has increased to 86 percent, with 74 percent having Internet connections, according to a study last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Recently, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster have become extremely popular in both high school and college environments. While each of these Web sites provides a range of different communication functions, all have a searchable database of their users, which may allow stalkers, identity thieves and sexual predators to take advantage of their unsuspecting victims.
Social Networking Sites Proliferate
Essentially, the three Web sites mentioned offer similar services but are aimed at different end users. Facebook is designed for college students and requires a university E-mail account ending in “.edu” to register. Each user’s account is only searchable by users at the same university.
MySpace and Friendster are available to anyone with an E-mail account. However, Friendster appears to target an older (post-college) audience, while the primary MySpace users range from preteens to older audiences. MySpace allows users to create a custom Web site, although each page is essentially set up in the same format, utilizing a user’s picture, self-identified interests and hobbies, and a virtual bulletin board for other users to post messages.
While these social networking Web sites provide an easy way for people to remain in touch over great distance, there is a potential for criminal abuse. The majority of users are oblivious to the fact that by posting so much personal data, they are placing themselves at risk. Merely requiring a user to provide an E-mail address is not an effective screening function as there are innumerable domains providing free E-mails.
This threat was realized with the murder of Taylor Behl, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University. She may have been murdered by someone she met through MySpace, according to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. In a second case involving MySpace, a 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted after she was tracked down using information she posted on her profile, according to USA Today. With 34 million registered MySpace subscribers, these may seem like isolated incidents, but it is unknown how many other assaults have been committed using information gleaned from a user’s profile.
Recognizing these threats, each of these social networking Web sites has sophisticated tools a user can enable to limit the degree of their exposure to unwanted individuals. These sites allow users to view profiles anonymously, but their security settings can be enabled to prevent a profile from being read by anyone but a friend or a “friend of a friend.” The systems also allow a user to block specified individuals and an individual account can maintain anonymity regarding whether a user is online or offline.
Study: Students Sharing Exploitable Information
To examine the risk facing college students, an experimental design was set up to measure the quantity of personal information that the users made available. Three hundred profiles were selected from Facebook subscribers currently enrolled at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in Fort Myers, Fla. A purposeful sampling of 150 men and 150 women were used to compile the database.
The study specifically examined the users’ profiles to determine whether they had disclosed exploitable information, such as their exact home address, telephone numbers, birthdates and places of employment. The study also examined a feature unique to Facebook, which was termed the promiscuity index. This feature allows a user to select the level of relationship they are looking for, which ranges from friendship to “random play.”
Statistically, there was very little difference between the information provided by men and women. The only exception was in the posting of cellular phone numbers, which happened much more frequently by men.
The study shows that students are freely sharing very personal and potentially damaging information. Most troubling is the willingness to provide the home address and place of employment, which would allow a stalker to make easy contact. The other information, while seemingly innocuous, can be used for identity theft, harassment or to simply gain information.
Despite the illusion of privacy, a motivated predator could easily track down the majority of FGCU students utilizing the information and photograph provided by each user. While this may seem unlikely, at least one registered sex offender was identified using the FGCU Facebook.
While making a university E-mail account a prerequisite for a Facebook account registration seems like an effective safety measure, there is nothing to prohibit a stalker from registering for a single class and later dropping, solely for the purpose of gaining a university E-mail account. Frequently, these accounts are left open for long periods of time, even after a student has separated from the school.
Publishing Personal Data Can Lead to Consequences
Social-networking Web sites provide a unique opportunity for students to communicate with friends and acquaintances. The unintended consequence of this open exchange of personal information is that many individuals may be placing themselves at risk to identity theft and even physical harm.
While these Web sites offer advanced safety and security protocols, they are rarely utilized, as they are counterproductive to the purpose of the Web sites. Essentially, users want to be found and find others through common friends and interests. Unfortunately, they may find themselves the target of unwanted interest and unwittingly feed the obsessions of sexual predators and the like.
Subscribers of these Web sites should consider the need to reveal each item of information and how it could potentially be used against them. Moving away from the sinister, students placing photographs of themselves online in various stages of intoxication, drug use and sexual activity makes this information available not only to their friends but also potential employers and school administrators who may choose to verify specific claims of upstanding moral character.
In the research for this project, at least one university was identified that cross-referenced Facebook profiles with character-based scholarship applications. In these cases, students were eliminated from the potential pool of applicants due to self-reported misconduct, thus losing the opportunity for scholarships. With the advent of technology such as Web-based social networking sites, school administrators and campus law enforcement officers should be aware of the new dawn in the evolution of stalking. Predators now have the ability to create an entire profile of their victim and even use search functions to identify and target their ideal victim.
As the type of harassment may come in the form of instant messages or other quickly disappearing digital media, investigators should be familiar with the most current forms of electronic communication and be prepared to follow an electronic paper trail back to the offender. It is imperative that campus safety administrators make students aware of the risks inherent in Web-based networking and measures that can be taken to ensure online safety.
Dr. Charlie Mesloh and Frank Thompson are with Florida Gulf Coast University’s Weapons and Equipment Research Institute in Fort Myers, Fla. Mike Laden is with the university’s Division of Justice Studies. Dr. Mesloh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the complete version of this article, please refer to the January/February 2006 issue of Campus Safety Magazine.