Should privacy matter more — if only to protect children?

Results of an important McAfee survey released today — The Secret Online Lives of Teens — illustrate the degree to which children are coming of age with the naïve — and dangerous –  belief that privacy doesn’t matter anymore.

This should give reasonable people pause to think about the degree to which sexual predators and cyberbullies are using social networks, texting and other technologies to victimize children.

Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Google, among others, continue to erode privacy to serve a profit motive. As a by-product, they’ve created vast opportunities for sexual predators and cyberbullies to target children with impunity.

Yes, technologies, such as powerful new parental monitoring tools, can help. And clearly, parents need to step up and start parenting. Yet given the scale of this threat, as highlighted by McAfee’s survey, why should Facebook and other corporations whose business models hinge on wiping out privacy  get a free pass? At what point should someone compel Facebook wunderkind CEO Mark Zuckerberg to factor the safety of children into his grand plans to shape  a Google-scale profit machine?

A wake-up call

McAfee commissioned Harris Interactive to query 955 American teens, including 593 aged 13-15 and 362 aged 16-17. Survey responses were weighted for age, gender, ethnicity and other variables. Its findings echoed those of a similar survey of young adults conducted by RSA the Security Division of EMC. The McAffee/Harris poll found:

  • 69 percent of teens divulged their physical location
  • 28 percent chatted with strangers

Of those teens who chatted with strangers, defined as people whom they did not know in the offline world:

  • 43 percent shared their first name
  • 24 percent shared their email address
  • 18 percent post photos of themselves
  • 12 percent post their cell phone number

What’s more, girls make themselves targets more often than boys: 32% of the girl respondents indicated they chat with strangers online vs. 24% of boy respondents.

“This report is a wake-up call to the real dangers our teens face when they make themselves vulnerable online,” says Tracy Mooney, whose official job title is McAfee Chief Cyber Security Mom. “As a mom, it worries me that kids aren’t practicing safe ‘street smarts’ when they’re online.”

Ripe Targets

It turns out that Facebook’s relentless marketing push to influence the mindset of us all, with regards to acceptable online behaviors, comes at a cost. In a virtual world where privacy matters little, children stand out as ripe targets for tech-savvy adult predators, as documented by Dateline NBC reporter Chris Hansen’s To Catch a Predator series.

“Kids would never hand out their name and address to a stranger in the real world,” says Mooney. “So it’s alarming to see how many kids do that very thing online.”

And its not just adult predators who are on the hunt. School-aged cyberbullies are taking the craft of humiliation to horrific levels, epitomized by the tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince.

McAfee’s survey found one-in-three teens knew someone who has had  hurtful information posted about them online.  And 14% of respondents, aged 13-17, admitted to having engaged in some form of cyberbullying behavior in 2010. Some 22% said they wouldn’t know what to do if they were cyberbullied

Families at risk

Kids also expose their families. Some 62 % routinely  download files  –  such as free movies or music, or pornography — known to be at high risk of carrying hidden malicious software. This malware can expose family members’ online accounts and personal data to thieves, not to mention turn the family’s  PC into a bot, under the full control of a cybergang.

“Like me, most parents think they have a handle on what kind of online content their children are exploring,” says Mooney. “This report makes it clear that we need to be much more involved with helping our kids make the right decisions online. Education is key.”

As for the free pass for Facebook? Here’s Mooney’s take:

As a general rule, I think Facebook does a good job. But social networks as a whole create a false sense of security for most users. Sitting in the privacy of your own home with a computer screen in front of you gives you the sense of safety which is not there. Having a network of friends may also lull you into divulging more information than you really should. Kids especially don’t consider what the social site may be doing with their private information or pictures that are posted online. The push to be more open is part of social networks business model, but users, especially parents,  need to be educated on how privacy settings work as well as what their kids are broadcasting. The responsibility needs to be shared by all parties.

Dave Marcus, Director of Research and Communication for McAfee Labs, concurs. Marcus suggests that is is largely incumbent upon the user to protect himself or herself, using the privacy controls supplied by Facebook:

One of the biggest problems Facebook users have when it comes to protecting themselves online, is not understanding or researching how to properly chose privacy settings. There is a big difference between the way kids and adults view online activities. Kids seem to value the openness of sharing information while parents are more cautious of this. Parents should speak with their kids, regardless of age, about the dangers of putting personal information online, and red flags they should look out for.

What do you think?

By Byron Acohido

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