As social networking tools have gone mainstream, they’ve incorporated sophisticated privacy settings that allow users to control exactly who can see their photos and other data. It is important to make use of these features to protect yourself. Unfortunately, the same features may also be providing a false sense of security.
In Indianapolis, two high school girls were disciplined by school administrators for posting racy photos on MySpace during summer vacation. Even though the privacy settings allowed only their friends to see the photos, someone with access distributed them to the school administrators, who then felt compelled to take action. The girls now face public embarrassment and are banned from extracurricular activities at school. The school also required the girls to apologize to an all-male coach’s board and to undergo counseling. The ACLU is now representing the girls in federal court, charging that the school violated the girls’ free speech rights.
Whether the school acted appropriately is a matter of debate (and now the subject of a legal battle), but the important thing to learn from this episode is that anything you post on a social network can easily become public. All it takes is one person with access to spread your information to others. You might not even realize that your privacy has been compromised until much later, or ever. For more tips on staying safe online, see NCPC’s handout on safe social networking included in the 2009-2010 Crime Prevention Month Kit.