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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Reporters, privacy settings and other people's Bebo profiles

Martin Hirst raises some interesting thoughts on how reporters in NZ are plundering Bebo, Facebook and other social network profile pages for quotes and pictures. He talks about the coverage of murdered economics student Sophie Elliott.

"I just wanted here to draw attention to the ways in which Facebook, Bebo etc are now being used extensively as a "source" for reporters. Usually in the context of horrible murders, like the one discussed in the SST article. In the print edition the frontpage splash is illustrated with photos taken from Sophie Elliott's Facebook page, including a photo of her with her alleged killer.

"I wonder did the SST get anyone's permission, presumably Sophie's family, to use this pic, or any pic of her from Facebook? Or is the assumption that because Facebook is 'public', no permission is required, stuff can just be ripped from there without regard to privacy or copyright issues.

"And what about potential contempt of court. A photo of the alleged killer - can this influence potential jurors?"
He goes on to say:
"What about the invasion of privacy? Oh, there is none. Bebo is like a public park. If you stand in the park and have a conversation, and a reporter overhears it, would you expect it to be in the next day's paper?"

I don't know that such coverage is 'extensive' but certainly some journalists seem to see social networks as targets for 'easy' reporting. There are a lot of ethical and privacy issues here, which I'd like to return to another time. But two quick points now: one, lazy reporting does no one any favours; two, every user of social networks needs to set aside 10 minutes to adjust their privacy settings.

The message seems to be getting out that people, especially kids, need to be safety-conscious online. It would help if newspapers would run useful tips and links whenever they run scare stories. That said, I haven't got any links together to include with this post, but I'll try to do so soon. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions from me...
  • go to the Privacy tab in whatever network you're using and answer the questions about who you want to be able to see what. If in doubt, choose to have your details visible only to your friends. For example, my Facebook friends can see my profile, groups, friends, pictures, contact details etc; non-friends can only poke me, request my friendship or send me a message, they can't see my profile or my friends.

  • Don't post anything you don't want your boss/father/grandmother/spouse to see. (They're logged on too and if they're one of your friends - or your profile is entirely public - they can see what you got up to over the weekend).

  • Expect potential employers/extended family members/old flames/old school buddies (or enemies) to search for you and check out your profile. Protect your profile or don't post anything you don't want them to see.

  • Don't publish your mobile phone number unless you're prepared to change it somewhere down the line if someone gets creepy on you.

  • Don't publish your home phone number or street address.

  • Don't publish your birth date (you have to provide it when you sign up but you can request that it doesn't appear on your profile). This is one less detail lying around for fraudsters.

  • Job done. Now hang out with your friends and have fun.
I'd be glad to hear other thoughts on how to keep safe online. You can leave a comment here or email me at