Teens advised to be careful about what they post on social networking sites
Bradley Furlong wasn't aware just who could access the personal information posted on his Facebook page.
Some 300 million people, in fact, give or take a few.
"I have no privacy (settings) on my Facebook," the 14-year-old acknowledged.
That means anyone with an account on the popular and ubiquitous social networking site can sift through his profile, which includes hundreds of photos and even videos.
Bradley, a Grade 9 student at Holy Spirit High School in Conception Bay South, has roughly 600 friends on Facebook.
But he said that he doesn't actually know many of them.
"A lot of people send me friend requests, and I accept them all. I don't even think about it," he says.
But now Bradley plans to change that.
He recently attended a presentation warning about the potential dangers of putting too much information online, and making it available to too many people.
The presentation - by Sandy Hounsell of the federal privacy commissioner's office - was an eye-opener for him.
Afterwards, Bradley said he will strengthen his privacy settings and winnow down his friends list to people he actually knows.
That's a good idea, says Hounsell.
Anything posted online essentially becomes "public and permanent."
Social networking sites like Facebook have opened up the world, allowing users to keep up with friends from Trepassey to Timbuktu.
But Hounsell warns that such Internet portals can also have a downside.
And that's the message he is spreading to the tech-savvy youth who have jumped online most wholeheartedly, and who aren't always worried about the digital footprints they are leaving behind them.
Last week, Bradley Furlong and about 250 other Holy Spirit students listened as Sandy Hounsell laid out a series of cautionary tales about social networking online.
Almost all of the students raised their hands when Hounsell asked who had signed up for Facebook.
"I want you to think about your own Facebook account," he told them.
Hounsell said Facebook is being used as a "snooping tool" by prospective and future employers.
He cited the example of a 16-year-old office worker in England who posted the following status update - "I'm so totally bord" - "all I do is shred holepunch n scan paper … Omg!" - and was promptly fired.
"The things that you do online have a very real effect on your lives in many ways," Hounsell told the students.
"You are being evaluated based on your online presence, whether you like it or not."
Those postings of pictures that show people in compromising positions? An inappropriate flash of skin here, a bit of booze-soaked debauchery there?
Not a good idea, Hounsell says. It may look like fun now, but may not be such a great idea down the road.
To drive home the point, Hounsell didn't just discuss what kids are doing on the Web - he also talked about their teachers.
There was the principal in British Columbia who was put on paid leave for posting naked photos of himself online, and accidentally sending a link to a student's parent.
And the Washington, D.C.-area substitute who lost her job after a first-grader's parent found the teacher's risque pictures on MySpace, and complained to her employer.
And there are even worse things that can happen.
Over a recent two-year period, MySpace identified and barred 90,000 registered sex offenders from the site.
Hounsell asked the Holy Spirit students how many of them posted their phone number online.
Many hands went up.
Then he told them that anyone could take that number, plug it into a reverse telephone directory, and print out a map to their house within minutes.
Finally, there are the identity thieves, who consider Facebook a "gold mine" of information, according to Hounsell.
Those online quizzes asking your first pet's name or the street you grew up on? Those happen to be same questions banks and credit-card companies ask as security features to protect their clients' accounts.
Hounsell outlined several simple tips for the students.
They all essentially boil down to this: be smart, and be careful.
Set privacy settings at the maximum level. Take care of your own personal information, and that of your friends.
Those are lessons that Emily Walsh takes to heart.
Emily, 14, set up a Facebook account as a way to keep in contact with other students who work on Holy Spirit's school newspaper.
"I'm always very wary of what I put there," the Grade 9 student said.
That wariness comes, at least in part, from the experience of a family friend, and an incident that happened when Emily was young.
That family friend's digital chatting progressed into phone calls with someone who claimed to be 22. But the man at the other end of the line was lying. He was actually in his 50s.
"So it's been kind of implanted into my brain that it's a dangerous place," Emily said. "You've got to be really careful on the Internet."
She has the top privacy settings in place protecting her Facebook account. Emily said she is very
careful about who she adds as friends, and what she posts for
the world to see.
But it's not all bad. xxxxxxx
Emily, for example, recently got back in touch with her best friend from Grade 3.
That friend left Newfoundland years ago for her homeland of India, and now lives in Dubai. Without Facebook, it's unlikely the duo ever would have connected again.
Fellow student Bradley Furlong has similar stories.
He has a lot of family members living outside the province - a cousin in Australia, an aunt in Halifax, grandparents in Florida.
Bradley said Facebook and MSN help him stay connected.
Meanwhile, Hounsell pointed to the example of Ontario teens who mobilized on Facebook and got their provincial government to back down on proposed changes to rules for driver's licences.
"This can be a very positive thing," he said.
The federal privacy commissioner's office recently conducted an in-depth investigation of Facebook's policies.
In response, the company agreed to make changes to those policies to better protect users' personal information.
That includes getting their consent before sharing information with advertisers.
"We're satisfied that, with these changes, Facebook is on the way to meeting the requirements of Canada's privacy law," commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said at an August news conference.
"The privacy of people using the site - not only in Canada, but around the world - will be far better protected. This is hugely significant. Facebook has 12 million users in Canada alone - more than one-third of our population."
On Facebook's official blog, the company has sought feedback from users on new privacy features, and posted tips on cyber security.
Facebook simplified the language in its policy document, Schrage indicated, taking out the legal jargon.
"We remain committed to protecting your privacy," Schrage wrote. "The information we provide to advertisers is 'anonymized,' meaning that it can't be traced back to you as an individual in any way."
To date, Hounsell has given the social networking presentation to roughly 3,000 students at a dozen schools around Atlantic Canada. Next week, he will be in P.E.I. for an education blitz at several more.
The privacy commissioner's office isn't telling students not to use social networking.
But they should be aware of the risks, and how to mitigate them.
"Use it," Hounsell said, "but use it wisely."