Face the facts: Potentially damaging images, histories stored on sites

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Mark Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old founder of the social-networking Web site Facebook.com, is finding it more and more difficult to preserve his privacy these days. Zuckerberg recently discovered even he is not immune from personal information finding its way into the public domain.

A Dec. 3, 2007, article in The New York Times reported that Zuckerberg asked a federal judge in Boston to order the removal of unfavorable documents concerning him from the Web site of a Boston magazine. According to the Times article, the site displayed “Mr. Zuckerberg’s handwritten application for admission to Harvard and an excerpt from an online journal he kept as a student that contains biting comments about himself and others.”

None of us need to be reminded of the importance of keeping our personal information secure in the information age. Companies, scammers and identity thieves all want your information to sell or steal. The loss of personal information can be annoying and extremely damaging; some people – especially college students – do not realize just how accessible their information can be.

For students who do not know – or care – how much of their life is available for viewing online, the Internet has become an unofficial, secondary résumé, in which banks, parents, professors, future schools and employers can catch a glimpse into their personal lives.

Still, a majority of students choose to surrender their right to privacy and display pictures, phone numbers and other information on social-networking Web sites like Facebook. Recently, many Facebook users have expressed concern that when they are ready to trash their Facebook accounts, maybe upon leaving school or starting a job, their information will continue to be saved, stored and used by Facebook, and their ghost profiles still accessible to anyone with enough time to find them.

The number of Facebook users worldwide has soared to more than 60 million, but despite its popularity, some users of this social-networking Web site are ready to jump ship. They are finding, though, that the process of deleting personal information is not easy.

Facebook offers its users the ability to deactivate their accounts, but a Feb. 11 New York Times article reported that all information related to an account is stored indefinitely. Even users who directly request the company to delete their profiles have been unsuccessful. According to the terms of use of the Web site, “You may remove your user content from the site at any time, but you acknowledge that the company may retain archived copies of your user content.”

Some social-networking sites and online dating services give their subscribers a chance to wipe the slate clean and completely destroy their profiles. Facebook and Zuckerberg know the pieces of information we give them – age, gender, interests and location, to name a few – are an advertiser’s dream. Companies will pay top dollar to advertise to certain demographics of the Facebook clientele – and Facebook is probably willing to give away that information whether our accounts are deactivated or not.

Until the day arrives when Facebook gives us the “nuclear option” – the chance to completely wipe away all the vulgar wall comments, inappropriate photos and illegally linked videos – each of us should be careful what information we make available. Someday you might decide to give up Facebook as you welcome your professional life and leave your college years behind, but Facebook will not forget about you.

Like so many services available in the digital revolution, Facebook and the Internet are double-edged swords. Their ability to connect us with those we trust is coupled with the risk of too much personal information falling into the lap of a perfect stranger.

Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.

Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to opinion@spub.ksu.edu.

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