Facebook can ruin your life. And so can MySpace, Bebo..., and imitating Steve Sailer's racist rants
Facebook can ruin your life. And so can MySpace, Bebo...
People will post just about anything on social networking sites. And the information can be used against them. David Randall and Victoria Richards report
In the judicial backwater of a New Jersey federal court, a case is being heard that nominally affects two families but should also make millions of Britons think twice about something they do every day: put highly personal information on Facebook, MySpace or Bebo.
An American insurance company, in defending its refusal to pay out a claim, is seeking to call in evidence personal online postings, including the contents of any MySpace or Facebook pages the litigants may have, to see if their eating disorders might have "emotional causes". And the case is far from a lone one. Suddenly, those saucy pictures and intimate confessions on social networking sites can be taken down and used in evidence against you in ways never dreamed of.
In the US, a sex assault victim seeking compensation faces the prospect of her MySpace and Facebook pages being produced in court. In Texas, a driver whose car was involved in a fatal accident found his MySpace postings ("I'm not an alcoholic, I'm a drunkaholic") part of the prosecution's case. From Los Angeles to Lowestoft, thousands of social network site users have lost their jobs – or failed to clinch new ones – because of their pages' contents. Police, colleges and schools are monitoring MySpace and Facebook pages for what they deem to be "inappropriate" content. Online security holes and users' naivety are combining to cause privacy breaches and identity thefts. And what all this, and more, adds up to is this: online social networking can seriously damage your life.
Just ask the 27 workers at the Automobile Club of Southern California fired for messages about colleagues on their MySpace sites; the Florida sheriff's deputy whose MySpace page revealed his heavy drinking and fascination with female breasts – and swiftly found himself handing in his badge; the Argos worker in Wokingham fired for saying on Facebook that working at the firm was "shit"; the Las Vegas teacher at a Catholic school fired after he declared himself gay on his MySpace page; the staff of an Ottawa grocery chain fired for their "negative comments" on Facebook; the 19 Northampton police officers investigated for Facebook comments; and Kevin Colvin, an intern at Anglo Irish Bank, who told his employers he had a family emergency, but whose Facebook page revealed he had, in reality, been cavorting in drag at a Hallowe'en party.
What these and other cases show is that employers and authorities are now monitoring what people imagined were private websites – and using the contents against them. Last September, David Rice, Britain's second-ranked tennis junior, and Naomi Brady, national U-18 champion, had their funding pulled and coaching suspended after the Lawn Tennis Association found pictures of them drinking beer, partying and, in Ms Brady's case, posing at a nightclub with her legs wrapped around a vending machine. And last summer, Oxford University proctors disciplined students after pictures of them dousing each other in shaving foam, flour and silly string in post-exam revelry were found on their Facebook pages.
At Cambridge, at least one don has admitted "discreetly" scanning applicants' pages – a practice now widespread in job recruitment. A survey released by Viadeo said that 62 per cent of British employers now check the Facebook, MySpace or Bebo pages of some applicants, and that a quarter had rejected candidates as a result. Reasons given by employers included concerns about "excess alcohol abuse", ethics and job "disrespect".
Viadeo's UK country manager, Peter Cunningham, said the results should act as a wake-up call to anyone who has ever posted personal information online. "Millions of people are leaving personal information online, much of which is cached and remains available via search engines even after the author has removed the web page," he said. "When people who are not the original intended audience – such as potential employers – find this information, it can have a major impact on their decision making process."
In America, the monitoring of social networking sites for content that may interest employers and officialdom is now so routine that software is being put on the market that will automate the process. Sure enough, software to try to defeat the snoops is also emerging – offering the prospect of a privacy "arms race" in the years ahead. ReputationDefender, for instance, offers the embarrassing personal information equivalent of credit reports, claiming it can help expunge from the online record material you regret revealing. Michael Fertik, the firm's CEO, said demand for their service is now "ridiculous", with hundreds of UK clients already.