To share or not to share: The Security Risks of Social Networking

If you are not using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linked In, or any of the social networks that are currently monopolizing the interest of web users, please stop reading. Well, given the fact that many of them are included in the Top 20 list of the most visited websites I presume that you are still here.

There are numerous reasons for people to join such a network including: keeping up with old friends, sharing music, photos and videos, finding job opportunities, starting up a small business, promoting it, connecting to causes and many others. To deliver such services, social networks contain and distribute huge amounts of sensitive information. This fact raises many security threats that involve scam artists, stalkers, identity thieves and companies that gather information to gain marketing advantages. Even if it is impossible to escape all the social network-related risks that exist, there are a few steps that you can take to reduce them.

First of all you have to be skeptical about the information you share. Some people share too much while their information can be shared more widely than they wished if they don’t set the network’s privacy controls. Before you share something, you have to be discreet and wary. Specifically, never type anything that would expose you to unwanted persons and remember that people on the Internet are not always who they seem to be. Also, you have to keep in mind that there are social networks that do not guarantee the security of the information shared through a profile, a group etc. For instance, as of May 7, 2010, Facebook’s privacy policy mentioned that it could not guarantee that only authorized persons will view a user’s information. The social network-related security flaws that come to light very often exhibit the above fact.

Most social networks employ some sort of application system where a developer is able to write code and develop third-party applications, which are executed within the social network and have access to content that is only available to the network’s provider (for example the public information of a user). Such applications include quizzes, games to play with other users, polls and others. Apart from the public information of a user, a third-party application may access some private information even if the user is not aware that this is happening. Actually, such an application may also gain access to the personal information of a user’s contacts even if those contacts have not granted any explicit permission to the application. Also, this kind of applications may contain malware designed to attack your computer or maliciously use your data. In addition, scammers can also utilize such applications in order to waste your time and resources. So when you are about to use a new application that was suggested to you remember to always think twice.

A malicious user does not have to develop an application to harm you. A simple personal message could be enough to form a phishing-like attack. Hence, you don’t have to click on everything that is sent to you. Especially on all these shortened URL’s that are popping up everywhere and are commonly accepted as links to relevant and valuable information despite their “disguise”.

Advertisers can be very interested in using the data that social networks collect (i.e. exploring the “favorite movies” section of millions of user profiles could be vital for a film studio). Such data can be used as a basis for behavioral targeting. But currently there are no limits on the ways advertisers can gather and use this kind of data. As a result, there are several concerns regarding this kind of advertising since user privacy attracts little consideration. For example, there are third-party applications that transmit specific information to companies without notifying users.

Social network security has attracted the interest of researchers and practitioners many times. If you want to learn more about this field you can check this white paper by Brad Dinerman called “Social networking and security risks”. Furthermore, you can have a look on how a person’s mishandlings in the social network context, can pose a security threat to her university and college network in “Who’s really in your top 8: network security in the age of social networking” by Robert Gibson. Finally, if you want to learn more about the security and privacy in social networks and how they can be ensured, you can refer to “Security and privacy in online social networks: A survey”, which is a very good survey by Novak et al.

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