Fake Facebookers Asking For Trouble?

An unidentifed University of Missouri student looks through Facebook while in class Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006, on the Columbia, Mo. campus.
AP Photo/L.G. Patterson
The latest salvo in the war between regulators and social networking sites came Monday when New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued a subpoena to Palo Alto-based Facebook for allegedly failing to respond to "many" complaints from investigators who say they were solicited for sex while posing as teenagers.

Facebook is the second largest and fastest growing social networking site. It was originally open only to college students but over the past couple of years it has opened its doors first to corporate users and high school students and now to the general public.

Before I go on, a disclosure. Facebook is one of several social networking companies that provide support to ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Web site that I help run.

Investigators from the New York Attorney General's office reportedly posed as youths between 12 and 14. But Facebook doesn't allow anyone under 13 to register so it's not clear how they could have posed as 12-year-olds. That's not to say that 12-year-olds couldn't lie about their age and claim to be older, but if they claim to be 12 they wouldn't be allowed on the service.

But there is of course a much broader issue. No one should be subjected to unwanted sexual solicitations, especially young people, including kids who are old enough to be on Facebook.

I'm not terribly surprised that investigators were able to put their fictitious teenage selves into a position to receive such solicitations but there are also ways that kids as well as adults can avoid this ever happening. This is the reason that it's so important to have parental education and involvement and why every parent of a child who might be using Facebook or any other social networking site needs to sit down with their kids to discuss how they are using the site.

Facebook members are required to affiliate themselves with "networks." A network can be a school, a company or a community. For example, I belong to the "Silicon Valley" network. Now that's hardly an exclusive club so right away it's possible for someone to expose themselves to a network that essentially anyone can join. But even if you are in a very public network, there are ways you can restrict access to your profile. Facebook (as well as MySpace and many other social networking sites) gives you a great deal of control over who can see your information.

You can, for example, restrict your public profile from being crawled by search engines. You can also uncheck the box in the privacy settings that will "allow anyone to see my public search listing." You can restrict access to your profile to only your friends - people you have granted access to. You can also limit what people can see if they do find you via a search and can prevent people from sending you messages. If someone does send you messages that you don't like, you can block them or, if they're a "friend," you can delete them from your friends list.

Facebook also gives users control over who can read their full profile. The smartest setting is to limit access only to friends, but you can also extend access to people in your networks. There is no setting that will even allow people outside your networks to see your profile, but of course it's quite possible for creepy people to be part of one or more of your networks, either because they really are part of that community or they've found a way to pretend that they are. It's hard to fake being a member of a college or corporate network because you have to sign up using a valid e-mail address from that entity, but gaining access to other networks is quite a bit easier.

There are plenty of other privacy controls that let you access who can view videos, see "news feeds" (updates you want to share with friends) and other information.

My purpose in writing this is not to defend Facebook. Perhaps there are more measures they can take to increase the default level of privacy for members, especially those under 16. And if the attorney general is correct that the company hasn't responded to complaints - well, it strikes me that it's tempting fate to ignore an attorney general: Facebook answer your mail. But when it comes to safety it's important to realize that individual users and parents need to take some responsibility. What we do know about risk in social networking sites is that the kids who get in trouble are almost always kids who take extraordinary risks. These so called "high-risk kids" are at risk offline as well as online and without being privy to the details of this New York investigation, I'm guessing that these fake kids took some very real risks.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid