The popularity of social networking sites continues to increase, especially
among teenagers and young adults. The nature of these sites introduces
security risks, so you should take certain precautions.
What are social networking sites?
Social networking sites, sometimes referred to as "friend-of-a-friend"
sites, build upon the concept of traditional social networks where you are
connected to new people through people you already know. The purpose of some
networking sites may be purely social, allowing users to establish
friendships or romantic relationships, while others may focus on
establishing business connections.
Although the features of social networking sites differ, they all allow you
to provide information about yourself and offer some type of communication
mechanism (forums, chat rooms, email, instant messenger) that enables you to
connect with other users. On some sites, you can browse for people based on
certain criteria, while other sites require that you be "introduced" to new
people through a connection you share. Many of the sites have communities or
subgroups that may be based on a particular interest.
What security implications do these sites present?
Social networking sites rely on connections and communication, so they
encourage you to provide a certain amount of personal information. When
deciding how much information to reveal, people may not exercise the same
amount of caution as they would when meeting someone in person because:
- the internet provides a sense of anonymity
- the lack of physical interaction provides a false sense of security
- they tailor the information for their friends to read, forgetting that
others may see it
- they want to offer insights to impress potential friends or associates
While the majority of people using these sites do not pose a threat,
malicious people may be drawn to them because of the accessibility and
amount of personal information that's available. The more information
malicious people have about you, the easier it is for them to take advantage
of you. Predators may form relationships online and then convince
unsuspecting individuals to meet them in person. That could lead to a
dangerous situation. The personal information can also be used to conduct a
social engineering attack (see Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing
Attacks for more information). Using information that you provide about your
location, hobbies, interests, and friends, a malicious person could
impersonate a trusted friend or convince you that they have the authority to
access other personal or financial data.
Additionally, because of the popularity of these sites, attackers may use
them to distribute malicious code. Sites that offer applications developed
by third parties are particularly susceptible. Attackers may be able to
create customized applications that appear to be innocent while infecting
your computer without your knowledge.
How can you protect yourself?
- Limit the amount of personal information you post - Do not post
information that would make you vulnerable, such as your address or
information about your schedule or routine. If your connections post
information about you, make sure the combined information is not more
than you would be comfortable with strangers knowing. Also be
considerate when posting information, including photos, about your
- Remember that the internet is a public resource - Only post information
you are comfortable with anyone seeing. This includes information and
photos in your profile and in blogs and other forums. Also, once you
post information online, you can't retract it. Even if you remove the
information from a site, saved or cached versions may still exist on
other people's machines (see Guidelines for Publishing Information
Online for more information).
- Be wary of strangers - The internet makes it easy for people to
misrepresent their identities and motives (see Using Instant Messaging
and Chat Rooms Safely for more information). Consider limiting the
people who are allowed to contact you on these sites. If you interact
with people you do not know, be cautious about the amount of information
you reveal or agreeing to meet them in person.
- Be skeptical - Don't believe everything you read online. People may post
false or misleading information about various topics, including their
own identities. This is not necessarily done with malicious intent; it
could be unintentional, an exaggeration, or a joke. Take appropriate
precautions, though, and try to verify the authenticity of any
information before taking any action.
- Evaluate your settings - Take advantage of a site's privacy settings.
The default settings for some sites may allow anyone to see your
profile. You can customize your settings to restrict access to only
certain people. However, there is a risk that even this private
information could be exposed, so don't post anything that you wouldn't
want the public to see. Also, be cautious when deciding which
applications to enable, and check your settings to see what information
the applications will be able to access.
- Use strong passwords - Protect your account with passwords that cannot
easily be guessed (see Choosing and Protecting Passwords for more
information). If your password is compromised, someone else may be able
to access your account and pretend to be you.
- Check privacy policies - Some sites may share information such as email
addresses or user preferences with other companies. This may lead to an
increase in spam (see Reducing Spam for more information). Also, try to
locate the policy for handling referrals to make sure that you do not
unintentionally sign your friends up for spam. Some sites will continue
to send email messages to anyone you refer until they join.
- Use and maintain anti-virus software - Anti-virus software recognizes
most known viruses and protects your computer against them, so you may
be able to detect and remove the virus before it can do any damage (see
Understanding Anti-Virus Software for more information). Because
attackers are continually writing new viruses, it is important to keep
your definitions up to date.
Children are especially susceptible to the threats that social networking
sites present. Although many of these sites have age restrictions, children
may misrepresent their ages so that they can join. By teaching children
about internet safety, being aware of their online habits, and guiding them
to appropriate sites, parents can make sure that the children become safe
and responsible users (see Keeping Children Safe Online for more
Author: Mindi McDowell
The above article is reproduced with the kind permission of US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team) and the original document may be viewed by clicking here