Cuomo Investigating, Facebook Red-Faced

Across the country, attorneys general are sniffing around Facebook and MySpace, looking to crack down on pornography and sexual predators.  Unfortunately, Facebook has taken to bragging about it’s privacy over MySpace, and that’s led to some red-faced explanations of why complaints about porn and predation have not been followed up on:

Facebook’s safety disputed || Democrat & Chronicle: Local News

“My office is concerned that Facebook’s promise of a safe Web site is not consistent with its performance in policing its site and responding to complaints,” Cuomo said in a statement. Facebook spokeswoman Brandee Barker said Monday that the states’ concerns are being taken “very seriously.” . . . Founded in 2004, Facebook started as a social network for teenagers and college students, but in 2006, the site was opened to anyone. The company has boasted about its efforts to keep its sites private and safe.

Andrew Cuomo is right to be looking out for kids on the Internet, and if there’s reason to improve safety on Facebook, I’m all for it. However, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison: privacy and identity security as opposed to safety for minors.  

Facebook does deserve a fair amount of credit for keeping its users’ information private at their request.  Relative to it’s chief rival, MySpace, the flexibility of keeping specific information private while allowing access to other information is head-and-shoulders over MySpace’s all-or-nothing approach to privacy.  The MySpace approach makes it almost impossible to be actually “social” on their network unless you want to leave yourself wide open.  With Facebook, you control which specific bits of information you want to reveal to the world, which not only allows some flexibility, but also fosters thought about what information is safe to expose and what information is not.

Online sexual predation is, before it is anything else, what the security community refers to as “social engineering.”  That means using social skills and faked social queues to get the target to reveal information they might not otherwise reveal when their guard is down.  This type of attack is not something which can be defended against too effectively via mechanical, logical controls.  The whole purpose is to get people to trust you and voluntarily reveal information, even if – and one might say, especially if – they’ve got it hidden on their profile.

So, the attacks of social predators online are such that logical controls will not prevent, though they could be discouraged through proper tracking of user’s activity.  But then, this poses it’s own security problem, with a private company tracking the movements of it’s customers.  What is required is a proper responsiveness to user complaints, and perhaps a “report this. . .” option on things like profiles, event requests, wall posts, etc.

It’s hard to say how much of this is genuine concern and how much of this is politics and digital witch hunting.  But if Facebook were to put a few more controls in to report suspicious users on their network, they could save themselves a lot of headaches.  There’s no doubt that the entire Facebook platform is far superior to MySpace in this and so many other regards.

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By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.