Consumer Reports Survey: Social Networks and Mobile Phones Threaten Your Security

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The June 2011 issue of Consumer Reports features a “State of the Net” survey, which interviewed 2,089 online households to study the various threats to our online security and privacy.

The results might alarm you:

  • Almost 30% use their mobile phones without any security precautions, potentially jeopardizing bank information, medical records, and other sensitive data.
  • Active Facebook users are risking burglaries, identity theft, and stalking: 15% had posted their current location or  travel plans; 34% posted their full birthdate; and 21% of those with children at home had posted those children’s names and photos.
  • Also, more than 20% of active Facebook users had never managed their privacy controls, making them more vulnerable to threats. Consumer Reports calls Facebook “the king of social networks [and] the custodian of arguably the nation’s largest collection of details about consumers’ personal lives.”
  • Many attorneys now use Facebook posts in divorce and family-law cases.
  • Almost 33% of Facebook users said they were not fully comfortable with all their friends.
  • More than 7.5 million kids under 13 are on Facebook. This is despite Facebook’s terms of service, which requires users to be at least thirteen years old.
  • Facebook use increases the risks of online safety and exposes users to privacy risks. The survey found that the social network exposed more than five million U.S. households to some type of abuse including virus infections, identity theft, and for a million children, bullying. Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who heads the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, has said the potential for fraud is just too great. He told the magazine that “Facebook needs to make its users’ privacy a top priority.”
  • One-third of households had experienced a malicious software infection in the previous year.

Being Social but Safe

If you (or your children) are hooked on Facebook, you don’t necessarily need to quit cold turkey. Here are some simple steps that Consumer Reports says may better protect you online:

  • Monitor a child’s account. The Consumer Reports survey found that just 18% of parents keep tabs on their teens through their friends or siblings.
  • Use privacy controls. About 20% of those surveyed had not managed Facebook’s privacy controls, which makes them more vulnerable to data threats.
  • Turn off Instant Personalization. Facebook has been adding sites to its Instant Personalization feature, which automatically links accounts to user-review sites such as TripAdvisor for travel and Yelp for local businesses. Users who don’t wish to share what cities they have visited with their Facebook friends via TripAdvisor should disable Instant Personalization, which is turned on by default.
  • Use apps with caution. Check which apps you are using and define the settings for each one listed. Decide what information the app can access, when possible, or perhaps eliminate the app altogether.

Finally, what are some ways to protect yourself on a mobile phone? Here are some simple steps to take immediately:

  • Use a password or PIN on a phone. The survey found that just 20% of respondents take this precaution regularly.
  • Take advantage of security services. Disable the phone’s GPS if you don’t need it, and look for software that lets you lock the phone or erase data remotely.
  • Only download apps from recognized sources. Read reviews first, and read what “permissions” the app is requesting. If any seem questionable, such as a request to track location when there’s no obvious need for the app to do so, don’t download the app.
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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi’s manager of digital content strategy.