MySpace: A Scary Frontier
The Internet's most popular social networking sites might also turn out to be the most dangerous. Lack of age verification and deliberate or inadvertent bugs on these sites have been used to harvest private information, implant spyware, or enable child predators. It would seem that the old "danger: stranger" warning to young children is still appropriate to users of social networking sites.
MySpace.com, with over 100 million active users worldwide, is a case in point. Two weeks ago, district attorneys in Queens announced that two underage girls using MySpace were enticed into the home of a couple, subdued with alcohol, and then subjected to various inappropriate activities. Problems like this are not new for MySpace; in 2006, a 15-year-old girl from Texas was assaulted by an adult user. In addition, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself after receiving messages she believed had come from a peer but were actually sent as a "joke."
Britain's Daily Telegraph recently asserted that the research for a documentary on the dangers of social networking sites had shown that 25% of teens are at risk on Facebook and sites like it. One quarter of the teens between ages 11 and 16 had published either their full names or their mobile phone numbers on the Internet in the open. To illustrate the risk, the researchers created a fictitious teenager named "Jane" on three popular sites. Within 20 days, Jane had received a number of lewd, explicit images and had been asked intimate questions about her virginity and sexual practice. (Source: Daily Telegraph)
To some extent, these risks can be confronted through the education of both users and parents. However, bugs in the systems also open the door to potential risks; the latest MySpace threat involves a bug that allows outsiders to view private images posted by underage "private" users. In another recent case, a banner ad running on MySpace.com exploited a Windows security flaw to infect more than a million users. Victims only had to browse the site with an unpatched version of Windows to be infected. (Source: Washington Post)
Sadly, neither predators nor bugs are that uncommon in the Internet arena. And even though the consequences of some of the bugs may not be equally severe, it's clear that social networking sites are prime targets for those preying on young people or trying to infect millions of computers with malware.