EDITORIAL: The challenges of social networking
Mar 08, 2013 (Arab News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
TO most readers over the age of 30, the expression "social networking", if it means anything at all, denotes meeting with friends and family and chatting over tea or coffee or a pleasant meal. To the younger generation however it is altogether something else, a powerful, incredibly useful and often highly enthralling way of keeping in touch with each other via social networks such as Facebook or messaging services like Twitter.
Just as the people in the Kingdom took to smart phone and text messaging with enthusiasm -- young Saudis sitting around the same table often used to text each other rather than speak face to face -- so now social networking has become a high profile phenomenon predominantly among the young. At the very least, one appeal is that it is something which many parents find hard to understand. And Twitter it seems is extremely popular, so much so that last week more than 800 people met in a Riyadh hotel to discuss their passion.
Clearly they felt that they needed a great deal more than the maximum of 140 characters for a Tweet message, in order to stage their debate. And to be fair to them, they did have rather a lot to discuss. Statistics published last summer suggested that there were already approaching three million tweeters in Saudi Arabia and the number had doubled on the year before.
Meanwhile, there are over six million people in the Kingdom who use Facebook. But all social networking sites, most particularly those such as Facebook, carry a very real danger, which all around the world, their principally younger users do not seem to appreciate, or if they do, simply do not care about. The reality is that people can post hundreds of small, and seemingly insignificant details about themselves and their lives and their friends and family. Favorite colors, favorite names, favorite numbers are frequently part of what people reveal about themselves. Now the assumption is that the only people who will be able to see this information are trusted individuals who have been "friended" by a user.
However this is simply not true. Computer sites list several fairly simple ways in which unauthorized entry to someone's social networking page can be achieved. For criminals with time and money on their side, there are highly sophisticated programs that can be used to gain access to what users assume are areas which are private to them and their friends. There are also pieces of key-logging software that can be planted remotely in computers that will allow account details to be sent to the criminals.
All of this information is used for the growing cybercrime of identity theft. At its simplest, this involves using credit card details to make a purchase or bank account details to transfer money into other accounts controlled, (and quickly emptied) by thieves. However, identity theft can be more insidious than that. It can involve the complete duplication of a person's life, down to obtaining the likes of replacement passports, identity cards, driving licenses and work permits. As e-government advances around the world, including here in the Kingdom, the opportunities for criminals to exploit the information that we put up about ourselves in cyberspace, will only grow.
Passwords have always been inherently vulnerable, even to having someone glance over your shoulder while you reactivate a sleeping computer screen. One major online payments group is now seeking to move away from them. The potential replacements are fingerprint readers or iris recognition software using the cameras that come with virtually every computer or smartphone these days. But this in turn comes with its own risks. One computer hacker in the GCC last year startled friends by playing videos of them, which he had recorded simply by breaking into their machines and watching them through their built-in cameras.
These, therefore, are not threats to be taken idly and the millions of young people using social networks in the Kingdom would do well to recognize and remember them. The bad news is that there are now close on 600 million enthusiastic Tweeters worldwide, generating something like 400 million messages a day. The good news is that, if a recent study is to be believed, there may not be an awful lot in the content for criminals to make use of. The research found that fully 40 percent of all tweets were "pointless babble," 38 percent were conversational, a mere nine percent had some "pass-along value," six percent were self-promotional, four percent were spam and just four percent was news, such as when a goal or a home run had just been scored.
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