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Privacy and social networking

By Andrew Barkla - posted Tuesday, 6 May 2008

For the first time, we used YouTube to release some compelling research as part of our Unisys Security Index: Australia’s only regular snapshot of public attitudes to key security issues.

We’ve chose YouTube for a simple reason - our findings directly relate to online social networking which is enormously popular with users of YouTube. And the results we are releasing are surprising and even controversial.

In fact 83 per cent of Australians said they were uncomfortable providing key personal data online but the reality is that they are continuing to post this material despite their concern.


Our research partner Newspoll conducted a national survey. We wanted to know how comfortable people were posting a range of personal information online when social networking. The majority of people are clearly uncomfortable:

Our results are a clear message to the millions of online networking users. You are feeling uncomfortable because you know the risks and perhaps now is the time to start thinking about how to reduce those risks of ID theft and privacy invasion.

We have all seen the many stories in the media about online social networking when it goes wrong. For example:

These stories often highlight the little we all know about how best to ensure online security and privacy of information.

Yet despite these high profile cases, and the lack of comfort our research has identified, people continue to place large amounts of personal information on these sites without much regard for the privacy implications.


Why aren’t we taking the steps to modify our online behaviour in the full knowledge that the more information we place on line and the less discriminating we are, the greater the risk of exposure to ID theft and more?

There is a clear paradox here - we know we need to better protect our information yet, at the same time, we are becoming more liberal in the amount of data we release into a public domain.

The very essence of online social networking lays at the heart of this paradox, explained by Catherine Dwyer, a lecturer at New York's Pace University who specialises in social networking sites:

“If you want any kind of interaction, you have to be engaged and reveal things. Privacy means having a small number of friends, but that is not really consistent with being a fully engaged user.”

So, is the price of privacy not engaging in online social networking?

No - it isn’t that radical, however the solution probably does have something to do with recognising our online behaviour and, if need be, modifying it.

Let’s face it, if it feels uncomfortable - and that is what Australians are saying - then it is probably is a good indication that we should do something differently.

Modifying our behaviour has been one of the most effective tools we have as a society in reducing risk, any where from drink driving, to giving up smoking to recycling, to protecting our environment.

We need to apply the lessons we have learnt from these successes to our online behaviour and modify that which makes us feel uncomfortable.

We need to do this because the evidence is there - none of us want to lose our personal information.

One area we already know is of significant concern is the loss or misuse of personal information, with the vast majority of people saying that this is an issue of the highest concern to them.

Of the 14 nations surveyed globally, the loss or misuse of personal information ranks as one of Australia’s highest concerns:

  • in Australia, fear of ID theft has ranked consistently as the highest or second highest concern of the nation; and
  • 61 per cent of Australians are extremely or very concerned about the loss or misuse of personal information;

Disturbing results given the fact that we are asked, daily, to provide personal data for a range of transactions. When we go online, it is like opening a door into our lives, our work and our homes. You can make sure you are prepared by following these simple guidelines:

  • don’t post too much personal information - like your children’s photos and details of where they go to school;
  • think carefully before posting material online - like holiday plans that could alert thieves to an empty home;
  • make sure you know how to set privacy controls - often you are not required to give as much information as you think;
  • block any user whose behaviour is, abusive, bullying or harassing you in any way; and
  • report inappropriate behaviour immediately to the host website operator.

Protection of personal information is a key issue here in Australia and around the world and it will only continue to grow in importance as online social networking continues to evolve.

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About the Author

Andrew Barkla is Vice President and General Manager of Unisys Asia Pacific.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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