Social Networking Sites: Helps You Connect and Share with the People Not in Your Life
The advancement of technology and the ability to access information 24/7 via the internet welcomes the new generation of criminal activity, cybercrime. The purpose of this research paper is to examine cybercrime being committed through the utilization of Social Networking Sites (ex. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). The research done on this topic will explain what criminal activity is occurring on Social Networking Sites and what Social Networking Sites are doing to help users keep their information private and prevent them from being victimized. Additionally, not only are Social Networking Sites being used to commit and further crimes, but they have also become the latest tool in fighting crime. An investigation into what law enforcement agencies are doing to utilize such sites to find criminals, alert communities, collect evidence, and prevent crime from happening will also be examined.
Millions of individuals around the world are logging on to Social Networking Sites everyday to communicate with family and friends, play games, hear the latest gossip, and share the latest news of their life with the entire world. The latest statistics have shown that users of Social Networking Sites spend an average of 55 minutes per day on such sites (Owyang, 2009). One of the fastest growing Social Networking Sites in the world is Facebook, a Social Networking Site designed to enable family and friends to share information quickly without a price. It is reported that Facebook has now accumulated more than 400 million active users since its debut in 2004 (Facebook, 2010). However, what many of these active users of Social Networking Sites are unaware of is the amount of information being displayed and readily accessible to those people not in their lives.
With the advancement of technology for the benefit of mankind, comes the advancement of new technology to commit crimes. From the years 2000-2004 cyber crime complaints doubled every year, and from 2004-2007 they remained around the same threshold. However, the latest FBI statistics, produced by the Internet Crime Complaint Center, show that in 2008 cyber crime increased by 30% since 2007 (IC3, 2008). Additionally, according to the 2009 Unsecured Economies Report produce by McAfee, one of the world’s leading antivirus software and computer security companies, reports that cybercrime costs $1 trillion or more annually, but that is also limited to what cybercrime was unreported (McAfee 2009). This figure does not take into consideration the cost of physical damages to victims, or the cost of police investigations.
As a courtesy to readers of this paper, a clear definition of Social Networking Sites, a brief description of the more popular Social Networking Sites and a clear definition cybercrime will be provided to better illustrate the problem at hand.
Social Networking Sites
Social Networking Sites first began as “online communities,” allowing users to communicate in chat rooms, discuss ideas, and share personal information. For this paper we will define Social Networking Sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system which is a representation of the user, (2) construct a list of other users (ex. friends, family, co-workers) with whom they can share a connection with, and (3) view and navigate their list of connections and those made by others within the system. Through these services users are able to interact over the internet, thus sharing information by way of e-mail, instant messaging, updating profile status and blogging. However, it should be noted that the nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site. According to a top-ten-review journal on the internet, the most popular Social Networking Sites in the world are Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and Friendster. In addition the latest Social Networking Site craze has been Twitter. What exactly do all of these sites do to allow information to be shared throughout the world? To understand, let’s define each one individually.
“Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”
Made even more famous with the release of one of the top selling movies of 2010 (The Social Network), Facebook currently has over 500 million active users worldwide and is the leading Social Networking Site in the world. Facebook is a Social Networking website that allows users to create a personal profile, thus allowing users to interact with other Facebook users. Since September of 2006, anyone possessing a valid e-mail address and is a minimum of 13 years of age (and not residing in one of the countries where it is banned) can become a Facebook user. Users can add “friends,” view other user’s profiles, join pages, chat instantly, and update their personal status whenever and wherever they like. Additionally, users can join networks or groups organized by personal interests, hobbies, schools or colleges, cities, and workplaces. Facebook's mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends and family, upload a plethora of photos, share websites and video links, and become more acquainted with the people they meet (Facebook 2010).
“A place for friends.”
MySpace is an online community that hosts a variety people worldwide. MySpace is set up like most SNS, requiring an e-mail address and a minimum age required to create a profile. A MySpace profile typically includes a profile photo and personal information easily accessible to other users. The amount of information posted on a profile is submitted voluntarily and can include just about anything. Members routinely send each other messages and socialize within the MySpace community. The format of MySpace makes it easy for anyone to submit profile information, even if they have little online experience. Though the domain has increased in popularity reporting hosting of over 122 million active profiles worldwide, it has also come under fire. Users are concerned that the inexperience of users makes it difficult to realize the potential danger of posting personal information to an online audience. Some profiles are very basic, containing only a picture and a name, while others can be very elaborate and provide a plethora of personal media and information. (MySpace 2010).
“Connect with your friends through discussion, entertainment, discovery and expression.”
Bebo is comparable to other social networking sites. Each profile is obligated to include two modules, a comment section where other users can post and read messages, and a directory of the user's friends. In addition, users can also select from wide array of other modules to add. However, by default, when an account/ profile is added to Bebo the profile is already set to private, which places limitations of access to friends. According to Bebo, it is “a popular social networking site which connects you to everyone and everything you care about. It is your life online - a social experience that helps you discover what's going on with your world and helps the world discover what’s going on with you.” Bebo combines community, self-expression and entertainment, enabling you to consume, create, discover, curate and share digital content in entirely new ways (Bebo 2010).
“Friendster helps you stay connected with everything that matters to you: friends, family and fun!”
With more than 115 million registered members worldwide, Friendster is one of the chief worldwide SNS. Friendster is prides itself in assisting people stay in touch with friends and discovering new people to become acquainted with, while illustrating things that are important to them. The demographic of users primarily consists of an adult population that maintains accounts primarily to connect with family, friends, social groups, interests, and activities. Friendster prides itself in providing an easy-to-use, friendly and interactive entertainment environment where users can easily connect with anyone around the world via www.friendster.com and m.friendster.com from any mobile device with internet capabilities. The service allows users to contact other members, maintain those contacts, and share online content and media with those contacts. The website is also used for discovering people interested in similar bands, events and hobbies. Users may share videos, photos, messages and comments with other members via their profile and their network (Friendster 2010).
“Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.”
Twitter is a free micro-blogging service and SNS that allows its users to create a personal profile to send and read messages known as tweets. Tweets are text-based postings of up to 140 characters displayed on the user’s profile page and delivered to the subscribers of the user’s profile who are known as followers. Senders of tweets can place limitations on delivery of their information, or they can leave it open for anyone to view. Twitter is a real-time information network driven by people all around the world enabling users to share and discover what’s happening now. Whether it’s breaking news, a local traffic jam, a sale at your favorite store or a funny pick-me-up from a friend, Twitter keeps you informed with what matters most to you today and helps you discover what might matter to you most tomorrow. The timely bits of information that spread through Twitter can help you make better choices and decisions and, should you so desire, creates a platform for you to influence what’s being talked about around the world (Twitter 2010).
An Overview of Social Networking Users and Shared Information
The use of social networking sites has increased significantly in the last 5 years, especially among teens and adults. The latest research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2010) indicates that 73% of teen internet users and 47% of online adults currently use social networking sites. Facebook is currently the most popular social networking site among adults; among adult profile owners alone 73% have a Facebook profile, 48% maintain a MySpace profile, and 14% a LinkedIn profile (Pew 2010). It should be noted that most users have multiple profiles generally on different sites, for professional and personal reasons. The slight majority (51%) of social network users maintain two or more online profiles. Among users with multiple profiles, a vast majority (83%) have those multiple profiles on different social networking sites while 17% maintain those profiles on one site. Users with multiple profiles claim that their use of multiple profiles is to maintain contact with friends on different sites (24%), while (19%) maintain multiple profiles to separate their personal and professional lives. However, it is shown that rarely (6%) just use different sites, have different profiles for different parts of their personality (4%), and have older profiles on sites they do not use anymore (4%)(Pew 2009).
After defining the most popular Social Networking Sites in the world, it is clear that each site has many common attributes. The most common attribute is that each site is utilized to share information with individuals around the world; individuals that are considered to be family, friends, co-workers, etc. However, is it possible to be sharing information with people that are not our friends, family, or co-workers? Of course! The internet provides opportunities for anyone to create false identifications, misleading information, and traps to ensnare vulnerable internet users into providing private information, and being set up to become victimized.
Much of the media coverage surrounding online social networks and their users has focused on the personal information that is made accessible on these networks. Are users sharing information that will harm relationships, jobs, future college or job prospects, or even finances? Or worse, are they distributing information that places them at risk of victimization? Research indicates that for the most part, but not all social network users are privacy conscious. Findings indicate that a clear majority of adult (60%) and teen (66%) users restrict access to their profiles so that only their “friends” can view them. A sizable minority of adult (36%) and teen (46%) users allow any internet user to view their online profile. Among those whose profiles can be accessed and viewed indicate that they give at least a little and sometimes a large amount of false information on their profiles. Users that post false information indicate that it is done to protect themselves, but is also done to be playful or silly (Pew 2007 &2009). What information are users posting, and should they be worried about what other users can access?
Understanding that 73% of online teens and 75% of online young adults age 18-24 years old maintain profiles the amount of information accessible is phenomenal. According to research completed by the Pew Institute a vast majority (82%) of profile authors include their first name in their profiles. Also, more than three-fourths (79%) include photos of themselves and two-thirds (66%) include photos of their friends and or family members. A clear majority (61%) of users include the name of their city or town, while almost half (49%) include the name of their school (Pew 2007 & 2009).
A similar study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) found similar results when analyzing the information available on CMU student’s Facebook profiles. The CMU findings claim that the vast majority of students list their real name (89%) and contain a profile image (90.8%). In addition, about 40% of users list a phone number to view. While these studies indicate the main components of an individual’s profile, it fails to mention the up-to-the minute information that is readily accessible as well.
Pingdom.com (http://www.pingdom.com/), an internet company that monitors websites and their status, has indicated that on the average close to 30 million tweets (Twitter updates) are posted every day, while at least 30 million people update their status on Facebook daily. Posting too much information can lead a person to become victimized. In March of 2010, a Virginia woman tipped off burglars of her whereabouts when she posted on Facebook that she was at a concert. After the woman posted the venue, band, and concert time she tipped off individuals that she thought were her “friends.” An estimated $10,000 worth of property was taken from her home (CNN 2010). Over-sharing information on sites makes individuals and their property vulnerable to victimization. One example of criminal activity has been mentioned, but what other types of crimes are taking place through the use of Social Networking Sites?
Social Networking Sites and Crime
· A Man accused of using MySpace to lure girl is sentenced to 3-5 years in prison.
· Suspect in Facebook feud stabbing to be tried as an adult.
· NC Sex offender busted for being on MySpace.
· 13-year-old girl allegedly kidnapped, assaulted by man she met on MySpace.
· Teens to face judge in Facebook bullying case.
The previous five bullet points are sample news headlines of crimes that are being committed in the United States through the utilization of social networking sites. Criminal activity that occurs online can be dissected into two main categories: computer-focused crimes and computer-assisted crimes. Computer focused crimes are “those crimes that pre-date the Internet but take on a new life in cyberspace, (e.g. identity theft or fraud, sexual harassment, bullying, hate speech). While computer-assisted crimes are “those crimes that have emerged in tandem with the establishment of the Internet and could not exist apart from it (e.g. hacking, viral attacks, website defacement)” (Yar 2005). However, this paper will be devoted to computer-focused crimes, namely: identity theft, cyber bullying, cyberstalking/ harassment leading sexual solicitation. Each computer-focused crime will be defined, given a description of how social networking sites play a role in the crime, and also what users of social network sites can do to prevent being victimized by such crimes.
The United States Department of Justice defines “identity theft and identity fraud as terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person's personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain” (DOJ 2010). The latest report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) shows an increase of 21% of ID theft in 2008. Social network sites are aware of the potential harm that can occur to users and are devoted to providing users with privacy settings to protect their profiles.
In 2009, Sophos, a computer security company, conducted a research experiment to see how simple it can be to steal very important personal data from Facebook users. Through the creation of two false Facebook profiles and at random sending “friending” invitations to users, found that 46% of users accepted the anonymous friend requests, giving the false profiles access to an incredible amount of information. Of the “friending invitations” sent to users in their 20’s, a vast majority (89%) divulged their full date of birth on their profile. Nearly 100% of all users posted or displayed their email address, and about 50% listed their current city of residence. In the hands of an identity thief wizard, this precious information can be effortlessly exploited. This same experiment was conducted two years earlier in 2007, to determine if Facebook users had become more privacy-savvy in regards to the information they were revealing. At the close of the 2007 experiment, findings indicated that 41% of users revealed their sensitive personal information to a total stranger. The false Facebook profiles had access to information that could help criminals guess someone's password or even pose as them (Sophos 2010).
A surprisingly high success rate of this same practice was recently demonstrated by a Missouri University student/ Facebook user who, using an automatic script that he created in 5 hours was able to contact 250,000 users of Facebook across the country and asked to be added as their “friend.” According to the report, 75,000 users accepted his invitation. It is apparent that 30% of Facebook users are willing to make all of their profile information available to a random stranger and his or her network of friends (Gross & Acquisti 2005).
Bill Belsey, a Canadian politician, has described cyberbullying as “the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to harm others” (Belsey 2010). According to the National Crime Prevention Council cyber bullying happens when teens use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person (NCPC 2010). One of the most recent cases regarding cyber bullying is United States v. Drew, a case that involves a parent creating a false profile to bully a teenage girl.
The case United States v. Drew is a perfect illustration of one of the many ways in which cyberbullying can take place through social networking sites. In addition, cyber bullying can take place among users and those that are close to them. During the composing of this research paper another case of cyber bullying took place, resulting in the suicide of a 15 year old girl. Nine Teenagers viciously bullied a teenage girl/ classmate on Facebook and at a school, resulting in her taking her own life.
Research conducted by the Pew Institute focusing on the propensity of cyber bullying found that about one third (32%) of all teenagers in their study that use the internet have been targets of a spectrum of annoying and potentially destructive online activities. These activities include receiving threatening messages, having an embarrassing picture posted without permission, having rumors spread about them online, and having emails or text messages forwarded without consent. Depending on the circumstances this type of behavior can be threatening, or just plain annoying childish behavior. Another interesting finding is that older girls (15-17 years of age) are more likely than boys to be targets; also teens that are more apt to post personal information or thoughts online are more likely to become targets, than those who are less active online (Pew 2007).
Cyber Bullying has become one of the hottest national topics with the suicide in September of this year of a Rutgers University student after his roommate posted taped footage of him having a sexual encounter with another male (Valentino-DeVries, 2010; Schwartz, 2010). Since then there has been a national dialog on virtually every news station and in most newspapers.
Cyberstalking/ Harassment and Sexual Solicitation
Cyberstalking and harassment by computer is the use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, a group of individuals, or an organization. It may include false accusations, monitoring, making threats, damage to data or equipment, the solicitation of minors for sex, or gathering information in order to harass. The definition of "harassment" must meet the criterion that a reasonable person, in possession of the same information, would regard it as sufficient to cause another reasonable person distress (Bocij 2004).
A Harvard University study identified the proportion of young internet users who engage in certain behaviors, thus placing them at an increased risk for online victimization. The findings indicate that 56% of young internet users post personal information on the internet, 43% interact with strangers online, 35% add strangers to buddy lists, 26% send personal information to strangers online, and 5% talk with strangers online about sex. This study illustrates why so much online victimization takes place, young internet users are setting themselves up for online victimization and sexual solicitation (Harvard 2008).
A Google search of news headlines regarding social networking sites and crime will show that the majority of incidents involve young female internet users that are victimized by strange men they meet online. The online victimization is only part of the picture. The Journal of Adolescent Health completed a study with findings that indicate that depending upon the group, 68% to 97% of online victims also experience offline relational aggression, and 24% to 76% also experience offline physical victimization (David-Ferdon & Hertz 2009). These findings eliminate the idea that “what happens online, stays online!” Rather, most online victimization takes place in an offline setting that can lead to physical victimization. So, what are social networking sites doing to protect users and their profiles, so that online relationships do not lead to victimization?
· If you are under the age of 13, please do not attempt to register and create a profile. If you are aware of an individual under the age of 13 sharing information on our site please contact us.
· If you are a registered user of our online services, we provide you with tools to access or modify the personal identifiable information (PII) you provided to us and associated with your account.
· You may change or remove your profile information at any time by following the provided instructions.
· You choose who you want your (PII) to be accessible to, just by adjusting your privacy settings. However, additional may allow friends and family to find you easier.
· You, as a user, understand that information might be re-shared or copied by other users. Certain types of communications that you send to other users cannot be removed, such as messages. When you post information on another user’s profile or comment on another user’s post, that information will be subject to the other user’s privacy settings (Facebook 2010, MySpace 2010, Bebo 2010, Friendster 2010, and Twitter 2010).
These five highlights are the most commonly found policies provided to users of social networking sites and are the ones that help in the prevention of computer focused crimes. However, not only have social networking sites provided policies to protect users, but law enforcement personnel are now using social networking sites in fighting crime, and solving cases.
Social Networking sites and Law Enforcement
From felons on MySpace and Facebook to police tips through Twitter, this “social media” is being utilized at an increasing rate among law enforcement agencies, and not only to combat Internet-related crimes. In addition, their efforts are about solving crimes that are occurring on the streets and in communities. New online efforts were discovered in a Justice Department document obtained by a San Francisco-based legal advocacy group known as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The document is a 33-page presentation prepared by two lawyers of the Justice Department, and was obtained in a lawsuit the group filed against the Justice Department, seeking information on its social network policies. This document outlines the ways in which law enforcement can obtain data from these sites: undercover operations, some information is public and use ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act) to get information from providers. Also, it explains how obtaining such information is useful: establish motives and personal information, reveal personal communications, establish crime or criminal enterprise, prove and disprove alibis, provide location information, and instrumentalities or fruits of crime (DOJ 2010).
A case which exemplifies the manner in which law enforcement utilizes social networking sites is of a man wanted in the state of Washington on bank fraud charges. The man known as Sopo, fled, and the police lost track of his whereabouts. However, the suspect’s Facebook page settings were set to private but his friend list was public. This means that only friends of Sopo could view his profile information, while those that are not his friend are not given access to his information. Among Maxi Sopo’s friends, prosecutors identified a former Justice Department employee who was unaware that his Facebook “friend” was wanted. When Sopo posted messages and status updates on Facebook describing his new relaxing style of living in Mexico, his “friend” provided information that allowed Mexican police to catch him and extradite him into the hands of U.S. law enforcement officials (CBS 2009).
Another way in which law enforcement is utilizing social networking sites is through communicating occurring criminal activity, thus allowing the community to be involved in solving the crime. Five additional methods in which law enforcement personnel utilize social networking sites to thwart criminal activity has been identified: 1) digital wanted posters, 2) police blotter blogs, 3) tracking information with Twitter, 4) anonymous E-tipsters, and 5) social media stakeouts.
Digital wanted posters are an old western version of a wanted poster that is posted on a police departments profile page. Law enforcement will post information regarding a suspect’s personal profile, the crime they committed, and where they were last seen. This method is used in hopes that the community will keep their eyes out and will spread the word to others. A digital wanted poster is faster at getting the word out than waiting for the ten o’clock news to report the incident. This is instant crime reporting.
Police blotter blogs are a record of police events at a given police department. A publishing of publicly available details of crime and arrests in area is easier than waiting for a journalist to come and run a story about the information. Police are able through social media to provide essential information to the public and other new gathering agencies instantly.
Tracking information with Twitter is utilized to communicate law enforcement services to the public. Twitter is used to transmit information about up to the minute situations, such as crimes in progress, or to put out information after a crime takes place and when law enforcement is searching for escaped convicts or missing persons.
Anonymous E-tipsters is not a new method of doing police work. Tips from the community has been a traditional way that citizens have participated with the police to fight crime. Social networking sites allow tipsters to send information through a variety of means. Filtered alerts can then be sent out through police department’s central locations. This method is used to enhance the relations between the police and the community through using web-tools.
Social media stakeouts involve law enforcement analyzing all forms of social media communication in an attempt to listen to individuals discussing criminal activity. This type of monitoring of content and keywords allows law enforcement to identify key phrases that are being used more often by criminals and groups to further their criminal activities. In addition, it allows law enforcement to see what people talking about especially if it is an emergency situation (Mashable 2010).
Millions of individuals around the world are logging on to Social Networking Sites everyday to communicate with family and friends, play games, hear the latest gossip, and share the latest news of their life with the entire world. The latest statistics have shown that users of Social Networking Sites spend an average of 55 minutes per day on such sites CITATION Owy09 \l 1033 (Owyang, 2009). Research has shown that the amount of information users post is enough information for one’s identity to be taken and duplicated, and used for economic gain.
It is apparent that teen users that post significant information are at an increased risk for victimization. A Harvard University study identified the proportion of young internet users who engage in certain behaviors indicate that 56% of young internet users post personal information on the internet, 43% interact with strangers online, 35% add strangers to buddy lists, 26% send personal information to strangers online, and 5% talk with strangers online about sex.
And while computer focused crimes are becoming increasingly popular on social networking sites, host sites are becoming more and more aware of the need to protect their users. Social networking sites continue to provide policies and strategies that will protect users and their personal identifiable information (PII). In addition to the risks that social networking sites have attached with their constant usage, they are becoming a crime fighting tool that is becoming very effective. Law enforcement personnel around the world are seeing the benefits of utilizing social networking sites. Law enforcement is becoming enabled to spread the word on crime faster than ever, and by doing so they are able to interact with the community in ways they’ve never imagined. So, the next time someone says “what happens online, stays online,” they should always keep in mind that someone is always watching and monitoring, whether it be online “friends,” law enforcement, or family, online information is not always protected.
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 Trever Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice at UNLV. This is a revision of a paper written for a graduate class in the spring, 2010.
 A small sample includes stories on these web sites: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39445225/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts; http://www.drewacorn.com/news/drew-acts-out-on-recent-suicides-1.1673491;
http://jonesborosun.com/archivedstory.php?ID=44897&Search=school; http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/28/assistant-michigan-ag-targets-openly-gay-college-student/; http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/1003/Tyler-Clementi-suicide-Reaction-is-swift-and-widespread.