Social media&rsquo;s a part of everyday life for millions. But the relative lack of privacy can have unforeseen consequences. <em>*MCT photo</em>
Social media’s a part of everyday life for millions. But the relative lack of privacy can have unforeseen consequences. *MCT photo

FRIDAY, JAN. 13: Imagine the shock of finding out about the death of your much-loved son on the social network site Facebook. For the parents of 23-year-old Anju Bidve, a university student studying in the northern English city of Manchester, this is exactly how they discovered that their son had been shot dead in the street by a random stranger.

And according to recent reports, news of the murder of Stefan Burgess, Bermuda’s first fatal shooting victim of 2012, was all over the social networking sites before his family could be officially informed.

Such is the speed of information through social networking sites, email or smart phone that it becomes increasingly difficult for police family liaison officers to be the first people to inform a bereaved family about a tragic death. After the murder of 18 year old Malcolm Outerbridge here in Bermuda, Assistant Police Commissioner, David Mirfield, commented:

“The power of social media has made the solemn duty of informing next of kin increasingly difficult.”

Within an hour of Malcolm’s death, a photo and a name claiming to be that of the deceased were being circulated by mobile phone. Both turned out to be incorrect and Mr Mirfield urged people to stop and think about the family members who may end up learning about the death of a loved one by text, Blackberry messenger or via a social networking site.

But the reality of modern communication means that it is quicker than the necessary but more time consuming checks to confirm a death and positively identify a victim.

With around 750 million Facebook users, nearly 500 million on YouTube and some 200 million Twitter users the power of social media is awesome and is becoming more so. For those who can’t understand the fascination –— who think that users should just get a life and go out to talk to some real people –—the idea of sharing many aspects of your life with a mass of online ‘friends’ is horrific.

Celebrity worship

Yet for a whole generation brought up in a cult of celebrity worship and competition to see who can get the most followings on Twitter or any of the other sites, social media is simply the stuff of life. You can have your very own ‘celebrity’ style presence complete with posed pictures and you can even Twitter along with the stars.

Of course, like real celebrities, the downside is a loss of privacy. An assistant head teacher joined the ranks of people seemingly committing career suicide by social network. After boasting on Twitter about being a drunk and a ‘lazy slut’, she ended up being hauled before her bosses to explain herself. 

Increasingly employers are not just using social networks to advertise jobs but to also check up on their workers and interviewees. So before you boast online about that great drunken night out or pose in your underwear, just remember that a would be employer might also get to see it!

And ever heard of ‘geo tagging’?  Most people won’t have a clue what this is but it is a means of embedding geographical data into media such as photos, videos and text messages to pinpoint locations. As a test, geo tagging experts used YouTube to find the home address of someone on vacation. By collecting user names and downloads of related pictures, they were able to discover that the person lived in Berkeley, California and was on vacation in the Caribbean. They were then able to Google search his real name to trace his home address. Chillingly the whole process took less than 15 minutes.

Identity theft

A 2010 survey revealed that around 3.5 per cent of the US population fell victim to identity theft — in raw numbers that’s a staggering 8.1 million people.

Police too are increasingly using social networks as a form of intelligence. Recently 17 alleged gang members were arrested in London following a Boxing Day fatal stabbing at a Foot Locker store. According to reports, social network sites were used to track down those arrested and to help build up a case against them.

Yet given the worldwide headlines about private investigators and journalists using phone hacking to get information, it is amazing how cavalier people are about their own privacy on social network sites.

Of course there are many upsides to social networking not least the information coming out of war torn and troubled countries around the world. But those aside, we still need to be more mindful about what we put on about our personal lives

As a guess most people reading this won’t have looked at the privacy policy of their social network provider or know if the site monitors the content that people post. So take a hard look and then decide what you really want to share out there.

And best to assume that everything you put on a social networking site is permanent.

 

Maggie Fogarty is a Royal Television Society award winning TV producer and journalist currently living in Bermuda.