Ghosts of blogs past that linger

LORNA MARSH They are meant to be a bit of fun, a chance to rekindle old friendships and keep up with current ones. But, experts warn, social networking websites can spell career disaster and lead to identity theft. Lorna Marsh looks at the latest controversy to hit the net.

LORNA MARSH

Party photos, jokey comments, comedy videos and flirting - just a few of the things that lure people to the mushrooming phenomenon of social networking sites and are posted without a second thought.

But they are also the same things that can come back and haunt them, even years later, along with strident youthful views that remain unchanged in cyberspace even when discarded in reality.

Britain's privacy watchdog warned young people yesterday that a blog (online journal) is for life and revealed in a report that millions have made themselves vulnerable to identity theft as well as putting their current and future academic and professional prospects at risk by recklessly posting personal information.

In a study of the net behaviour of young people, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) revealed that 4.5m web users aged between 14 and 21 are damaging their future education and employment prospects by leaving an “electronic footprint” which could compromise their chances of winning places at colleges and companies.

David Smith, deputy commissioner for the ICO, said: “Many young people are posting content online without thinking about the electronic footprint they leave behind.

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“The cost to a person's future can be very high if something undesirable is found by the increasing number of education institutions and employers using the internet as a tool to vet potential students or employees.”

Anne Benson, director at UEA Careers Centre, said that following the report she would now include warnings about blogs and social networking sites, ironically used by many services across the country to engage with young people, in advice to students.

“Like ourselves it was not an issue students had particularly thought about to date. I will be formulating a response based on advice given by the Graduate Recruitment bureau. The message boards there are very mixed, with some students saying they would not want to work for an employer who judged them in this way or base their views on what they were like as reckless youths.

“It happens all the time to politicians and the like, some activity they took part in 20 or 30 years ago can come back and haunt them.”

Owen Van Natta, an executive at Facebook, told a national newspaper that the firm regarded privacy as a big issue but that not everyone would be able to keep up with the pace of change.

“We've learned some really valuable lessons. We take security very seriously. We ... try to make sure users are educated. But we're a technology company, this socialisation of the web is happening at such a rapid pace.”

Nearly two-thirds of those responding to the survey said they had never considered that information they put online now might be permanent and could be accessed years into the future.

One 16-year-old girl told researchers: “I had a blog a couple of years ago and want to delete it - but I can't, and I had personal details on it.”

A 16-year-old boy said: “Potential employers could 'Google' you and it could give embarrassing information etc.”

As well as not thinking ahead before posting information on the web, the survey of 2,000 Britons aged between 14 and 21 revealed that their online behaviour was a gift to potential fraudsters.

Two-thirds accept people they don't know as “friends” on social networking sites and more than half leave parts of their personal profile public specifically to attract new people.

More than seven in 10 are not concerned that their personal profile can be viewed by strangers and 7pc do not think that privacy settings are important.

Nearly two-thirds post their date of birth, a quarter post their job title and almost one in 10 give their home address.

The ICO warns that when this basic information is combined with details that might be used to create passwords - such as a sibling's name (posted by 23pc), a pet's name (posted by a quarter of girls), and even mother's maiden name (posted by 2pc), fraudsters have enough information to obtain products and services in a young person's name or access existing bank or online accounts.

New guidance includes warnings that a “blog is for life” and can leave a permanent electronic footprint. “If you don't think you'll want it to exist somewhere in 10 years' time, don't post it,” it warns.

The guidance is available on www.ico.gov.uk/youngpeople

TOP SITES

t MySpace: World's biggest social network, used by more than 10m Britons, with a large following among music fans and artists, including Lily Allen.

t Facebook: More than 4m users in the UK. Set up initially for university students and attracts an older base than Myspace.

t Bebo: Network of choice for many teenagers, founded by Michael Birch; claims more than 11m UK users

t Faceparty: Declining popularity but at its peak had more than 6m users in the world; preferred by clubbers.

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