- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A lot of news in recent days has centered on you, more specifically your personal demographic information — age, sex, interests, shopping preferences, etc. — and how easily it is passed between online services and companies that want to use that information, sometimes attached to identifying data about you. Among the places where such information can be “scraped,” as the term goes, are the online communities MySpace and Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal has done the yeoman’s share of investigating and reporting on this, and they are to be commended for their enterprise. As many people responded when contacted by a reporter, it’s a surprise to find that your information is floating around.

The situation is complex and multilayered: People who use online services, who browse the Web for everything from scrapbooking tips to recipes for sauteed turbot and beyond, are natural targets for marketing. The old business adage, “About half of my advertising works; trouble is, I don’t know which half,” is obsolete now. A marketer can find the most qualified prospects for their wares easily. That’s good news for business owners seeking to gain an advantage in this choppy economy.

However, it’s important to consumers that they know what’s going on. The accusation against Facebook and MySpace is that in some applications associated with these services share “user IDs,” and sometimes those of one’s online friends, with outside marketers. Those IDs can be searched and the name and other key information about a user can be found, the Journal’s report asserted.

Many of the applications are popular online games, including FarmVille, Texas HoldEm Poker, and FrontierVille — each with millions or tens of millions of users.

What to do? Well, part of that depends on your likes and dislikes. I’ve never really been one for online gaming, but there are people who are FarmVille aficionados, or huge fans of MafiaWars and similar games. My personal thought would be to avoid these for now. If you must engage with these applications, be careful.

There’s a page online at Facebook, www.facebook.com/security, that offers all sorts of tips on staying safe, as well as a quiz that will help you learn about the security features Facebook offers. MySpace (which, ironically, is owned by News Corp., the Journal’s parent) has its own security pages at https://mysp.ac/9JK80p.

Of course, MySpace and Facebook aren’t the only places where you need to be secure online: the whole Internet is potentially a security minefield. By now, many of us know the basics — avoid giving out your personal information online without being very sure of who is asking for it and be wary of too-good-to-be-true e-mails. I promise, no one has died in a Siberian plane crash, left a multimillion-dollar fortune with no heirs, and you were randomly selected to collect the moolah. There are tons of Web sites and tutorials online where you can learn the basics of Internet safety.

There’s also software that can help, such as Norton Internet Security ($69.99 retail) and Norton 360, ($79.99 retail), both for Windows PC users. NIS will protect you online from a raft of bad things, while the 360 product adds antivirus and other defenses as well as 2 gigabytes of secure online storage. That’s not enough to back up your hard drive, but it can store a lot of basic files. Information on these products can be found at https://us.norton.com/index.jsp.

But wait, there’s more. You can (and, in my view, should) tighten privacy controls on Web browsers to block data harvesting “cookies” from being placed in your Internet browser by the websites you visit. (The Norton programs can block all cookies, if you desire.) And you can just skip those sites and online games that ask for personal information.

And, a service such as LifeLock.com can lock down and monitor your credit files, and flag any suspicious activity, giving you a heads-up on identity theft. It would strike me as cheap insurance to guard your reputation.

The bottom line, as mentioned in this space many times before: You are the person most responsible for your online security. Get educated, and guard your data (and your family’s) online and offline.

Send e-mail to [email protected].

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