Student blogs on the rise, despite security risks
As the popularity of online Web logs, or “blogs,” has sky-rocketed in the past couple of years, it is starting to become clear that the sense of security users have in these sites is oftentimes incredibly misplaced. Although Web sites such as MySpace, LiveJournal, and Xanga include privacy provisions, they oftentimes end up being available to anyone who can connect to the Internet – including unwanted strangers, prospective employers, and even someone’s parents.
According to a recent study released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, at least 8 million youths ages 12 to 17 read or create blogs. The Facebook, which had only a few hundred users in 2003, its first year, now boasts more than 8.5 million profiles. Scott Granneman, professor of the University College course “From Blogs to Wikis: Building an Online Community in a Virtual Environment,” attributes the wide popularity of social software such as blogs not only to the fact that they have become incredibly easy to use, but also to the “unique combination of structure and lack of structure” that they provide. In other words, blog sites give users a box where they can not only write, but put down absolutely anything that they desire.
Junior Jazzy Danziger, co-administrater of the Washington University students’ LiveJournal community, credits the growing popularity of blogs to the fact that the stigma attached to them has declined. “The stereotype of the ‘nerd with a blog’ is fading,” said Danziger.
She noted that another aspect of people’s attraction to blogs has to do with ego. “We all want to believe that people are interested in our everyday lives,” she said.
Yet many recent issues involved with these Web sites have raised concern among both users and campus leaders. Despite privacy protections put in place by these Web sites, much of students’ information, including cell phone numbers and dorm room numbers, may be made available to a much wider and unknown audience, creating potentially dangerous circumstances. As the Chicago Tribune reported, Michael Sullivan, deputy bureau chief for the High-Tech Crimes Bureau of the Illinois attorney general’s office, has already taken reports of students being approached by unwanted visitors after posting this type of information in their online blogs.
These dangers are compounded by the fact that students oftentimes use online journals as a type of counseling forum, discussing past issues such as sexual abuse or depression. As Sullivan noted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “You’re not only putting out how to get ahold of you, but you’re actually telling what the problems are in your life, which gives predators a chance to know what buttons to push.”
Granneman attributed these privacy issues to the fact that “people don’t think hard about what they’re posting.” As an example, he described how a quick search for “licenses” on Google Images draws up numerous images of scanned licenses that people have placed on their own Web sites, making them readily available for both stalkers and those intending to commit identity theft.
Yet the dangers of blogging extend beyond these security issues, as topics discussed on revealing blogs can come back to haunt people during social circumstances and even job interviews. Danziger is aware of these threats.
“I use these security options often, usually when I’m writing about a topic or a concern that I only want my close friends to know about or respond to,” she said. “Even then, I have to ask myself, ‘If for some strange reason this privacy provision failed, would you be horribly embarrassed if this entry was available for all eyes to see?’”
Privacy concerns arise from the fact that when a blog post goes online, it may be indexed by Google, even if it is removed a couple days later. Due to Google’s cache, information or reactions posted in online journals may live on longer than anyone ever intended. In his course, Granneman uses the term “the Web never forgets” to refer to this troubling circumstance. These conditions may pose serious threats to blog users when they are interviewing for jobs; if a prospective employer Googles a name and discovers an incriminating image of him or her next to a beer bong, the outlook may not be hopeful.
Aside from Google’s index, Granneman explained that even if someone limits how many people can access their blog, it is never truly private, due to the simple act of copying and pasting. “Someone could copy what you’ve written and put it in their blog, and then it’s open to everyone,” he pointed out.
Said Danziger: “You have to write with the assumption that everyone you’ve ever spoken to or even met is reading your blog – otherwise you’re bound to get yourself in trouble. As evidence of this concern, Granneman cited the growing trend of people now including at the bottom of their e-mails advisories against blogging, such as “please keep this e-mail private, do not blog.”
Even with these security concerns, Granneman admits that he continues to run his own blog.
“The only way to safeguard your privacy is to not blog at all.but that’s no fun,” he said.
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