V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Becoming web dead

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, May, 2009.

Part 3 in a 3-day series

It was 3 a.m. when Lori Paris sleepwalked her way into work, ready to anchor the overnight shift at her local radio station.

As always, she went to log into her Facebook account looking for the company of virtual friends at a lonely hour, but was blocked, greeted instead by hostile "error" messages flashing on her screen.

"Then a co-worker who works down the hall ran down asking, 'What do you need help with?" Paris recalled.

While the real McCoy was sitting at her desk in a Toronto radio station, an imposter from England had hijacked Paris' Facebook profile and was pleading for help in her status message.

"Apparently, I was stuck in London and needed $500 to get home," Paris said.

"I had been robbed at gunpoint and had no money to get back."

For the next few days, Paris was fielding frantic phone calls from friends and family who were ready to fork over money.

"I didn't want anyone to get ripped off," she said.

Unlike stories of feckless users who post personal information on public profiles, Paris had restricted access to friends she approved.

She was likely the victim of a worldwide phishing attack earlier this year that used the same ruse of being stuck in London and struck a "small number of users," said Debbie Frost, a Facebook spokesman.

"We're reminding users to be very suspicious of anyone, even friends, who ask you over the Internet to send money."

But users overestimate the security levels of social networking sites and forget that they're for-profit businesses with crude security systems -- not banks, said Avner Levin, the director of the Privacy Institute at Toronto's Ryerson University.

Meanwhile, though identity thieves are creating multiple doppelgangers of people online, an opposite phenomenon has also been surfacing -- scrubbing oneself offline, or web dead.

Companies such as ReputationDefender will scour the Internet and remove unflattering material that could sully their client's online reputation. For example, when a grad student discovered a picture of her half-naked body posted by a bitter ex-boyfriend, she enlisted ReputationDefender's help. The company's strategy is surprisingly simple: they ask the site host politely. They're not a legal team, says founder Michael Fertik, but they've seldom had to resort to legal methods in the 10,000 removal requests made so far.

Not everything is erasable. Official records like court documents and news clippings are immune.

"People are alive to the fact that the web is not their enemy," Fertik said from California. "It's a fact of life and people want to have as much control over it as possible."

But what if you don't have an online profile or e-mail account, as is common among the computer illiterate? Don't be quick to congratulate yourself on preserving anonymity, experts say.

Because unbeknownst to you, you could be identified in a nephew's Facebook family picture.

"The world is changing with social media," Levin said. "People will have to play by a new set of rules. Very little is sacred or within our control anymore."

But that shouldn't mean we get little say in how our information is used, say experts at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic in Ottawa.

"The big criticism of social networking sites is that the terms of use aren't clear," said acting director and lawyer David Fewer. "The benefits are clear, but the cost of engaging in the service is unknown."

Lawyers at the clinic filed a complaint against the networking giant, alleging Facebook's policies violate Canadian privacy law by failing to identify how it collects and uses personal information, and what it does with personal information after users deactivate their accounts.

The policy must be in plain language and refrain from legalese, Fewer said, and clearly spell out privacy settings to its client base, which is made up predominantly of young users.

"The claim that privacy policies take care of everything is an incredible abdication of responsibility," Fewer said.

Facebook officials, meanwhile, maintain the complaint is flawed because it overlooks the obvious: that the data is willingly shared by users.

"At Facebook, we ... believe (the controls) are entirely consistent with both the spirit and requirements of Canadian privacy law," Frost said.

But are we asking too much of a service that, at the end of the day, is a for-profit business and not a government institution?

"We need to be reminded that Facebook is a business and has to make money," Levin said. "There's a strong sense of entitlement to privacy in social media. It's part of a larger sense of entitlement from getting things for free on the Internet like movies, music and software."

When you sign up for a free service, you "choose" to volunteer personal information that's then shared with third-party advertisers -- there has to be an exchange, Levin said.

"People have unrealistic expectations that you can get the best of both worlds. In the real world, something has to give."

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