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No place for private things

Despite what teens might think, information posted online could cause them problems

Despite what teens might think, information posted online could cause them problems

July 21, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

Talking to strangers is bad enough, the 17-year-old MySpace user said.

So is posting pictures of underage drinking and other criminal behavior onto your personal Web page, said Ian Ganden, the Web-publishing teen.

But a face-to-face meeting with a stranger you meet online?

"That's just stupid," said Ganden, a resident of Hagerstown.

Despite what Ian and many young people like him would consider obvious dangers, Web experts say people who author personal Web pages - particularly children and teens - have a skewed sense of privacy online.

In a 2006 survey of 1,600 youths ages 13 to 17, one out of every five teens said they thought it was safe to share personal information on a public blog or networking site, according to a report released in May by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. More than a third said they weren't concerned about a stranger using that information without their approval.

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"When you are publishing (personal Web sites), you get a false sense of intimacy," said Fernanda Viegas, a researcher for IBM. "When you're posting and your friends are the ones responding, it's a hard thing to remind people of: Anything you post online, not only is it public, but it's pervasive. You never know what people are going to do with (what you post)."

"Only after you get hurt do you realize how important it is to keep private things a little more private," said Viegas, who has authored several studies about online social networks.

In Maryland, the number of complaints reported to the Internet Crime Complaint Center - a joint effort between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center - more than doubled between 2004 and 2005. There were 1,248 complaints in 2004, according to the center's annual report. The number of complaints rose to 3,921 in 2005.

"It's such an underreported thing," said Detective Sgt. Robert Smolek of the Maryland State Police Department's Computer Crimes division. Smolek said it's difficult for Maryland's 160 police agencies to track computer crimes.

Still, he said it is a growing concern, particularly for young people.

"When you upload things to a personal Web page or a social networking site like MySpace, you lose control over it," he said. "It's sitting on someone's server somewhere."

Even Google's Web search features include "cached" links, snapshots of old Web pages, Smolek said.

Last month, the mother of a Texas teenager filed a $30 million lawsuit against MySpace.com, one of the largest online networking services that allows users to set up personal profiles. The 14-year-old was allegedly assaulted by a man she met on MySpace.

MySpace officials announced changes to its policies. Adult users are now unable to join the friends' lists of those 16 or younger without knowing that youth's e-mail address or full name. The measure, MySpace officials said, would prevent adults from accessing personal information from Web pages of underage users.

Kelsey Snow, 17, of Smithsburg, said she never posts personal information on her MySpace page. Snow said she's seen high-schoolers post photos of themselves scantily clad, drinking and doing drugs.

"I see a lot of that," Kelsey said. "It's kind of stupid."

Ian said he joined MySpace to "find people to hang out with." But he said the people he socializes with online are students who attend his school or are teens from other high schools. He said he was surprised by some of the things he's seen on teen Web pages.

"They don't realize (the danger) until someone starts stalking them," Ian said.

Last week News Corp., the company that owns MySpace.com launched a multimillion-dollar online safety campaign featuring Kiefer Sutherland, the star of Fox's "24." News Corp. plans to use the Internet and TV ads to offer safety tips to teens and parents.

Tips are available at www.commonsense.com.

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