Online Threats

Simply going online can present a risk to your privacy. Nothing you do on the internet is completely private – the web never sleeps and it never forgets.

Social Networking sites like Facebook, Friendster, MySpace and others have become enormously popular since 2007. People of all ages – but in particular young people – are drawn to how easily they can make new contacts and get back in touch with old friends.

The purpose of social networking sites is to make the information in your profile available to as many people as possible. And because of that, these sites are very useful for those who want to covertly gathering information about people.

Many sites restrict who can join – some by limiting the users to those over 16, others by requiring a new user to show they are a member of a given community, or be invited to join by an existing user. But many sites are open to all registered users, which can include people who are not there to make friends.

What Kind of Information on a Social Networking Site Could Put You at Risk?

Many profile registrations prompt users to include information about themselves. Information from an average profile that can expose you to risk includes:

  1. Your name;
  2. Your birthday;
  3. Where you were born and what city you live in now;
  4. Your religion;
  5. The schools you attend or graduated from;
  6. Your work history;
  7. Where you work now;
  8. Your relationship status;
  9. Your interests, experiences and habits; and
  10. What you look like.

Who Can See the Information on Your Profile?

Usually, anyone can see your profile because that is the intent of the site.  Default privacy settings on most social networking sites allow a great deal of information to be displayed to anyone who views a profile page. This means that unless you change the default settings, you automatically agree to make all the details of your profile visible on the profile page, and available for download by any person who views the page.

The search tools on each site differ, and some permit the general public to search the whole database. If a user does not change their privacy profile, searchers may be able to view their whole profile and all their personal information they post. Often these searches can be very specific, filtering down to even a specific school, name, email address or postal code.

One important thing for users of these sites to remember is that whatever you post can be available for all the world to see, and people will form opinions about you based on what you post. Pictures you post on the Wall or comments you make about hating your job could come back to haunt you.

Social Networking Sites Can be Used for Identity Theft

Identity thieves can get enough information from your profile to enable them to impersonate you and use your identity information to commit other crimes.

Other types of criminals can get enough information from a profile to know, for example, your first and last name, the dates when you are away on vacation, that your house may be empty and what city you live in.

With that information in hand, they simply have to look you up in the phone book, find your address and drop by your home during your vacation to rob you.

How Do You Stop the Whole World From Seeing Your Profile?

Most sites let you change the privacy settings to impose some limits on who might be able to see your profile or part of it. To make the change, users must generally search the site for the link or take other similar active steps in order to make any changes.

To change the privacy settings on your profile, try going to the “privacy” or “settings” link, or look for a link when you are in the screen to update or edit your profile.

What About Website Developers, Software Applications and Advertising?

Website Developers – website developers are generally responsible for creating and managing the website. Under privacy laws an organization has a number of duties to ensure that information is kept secure, and not collected, used or disclosed without the individual’s informed consent. Often the privacy policies of these sites are vague and complex, the organizations do not get adequate consent from individuals, and they use and disclose users’ personal information to advertisers and marketers.  

Third Party Applications
- (1) Many applications by third party software developers are given access to all the personal information in your profile.  When you add a new application to your profile page, the developer often can then get access to your profile and all your personal information.
In addition, websites do not always have clear directions on how to opt-out, or make their process or even their instructions easy to find on their site.

Sometimes the developer requires you to give access to all your personal information in order to use the application and won’t allow you to opt-out at all. In some cases a third party application may get access to all your friends’ personal information, regardless of the privacy settings on each of their profiles. (2) Be aware when you download new games or cute questionnaires or other applications that you may be exposing more of your personal information than you intend, and that the developer may be mining your list of friends for personal information about others.

For example, the SuperWall application consent statements simply states: “Allowing Super Wall access will let it pull your profile information, photos, your friends’ info, and other content that it requires to work.” It is recommended that you read the policies of the developer of the application and chose new applications carefully.


Some social networking sites sell advertising space to businesses by permitting them to target their advertising based on the detailed demographic information that is available in each profile.  The advertisements will be targeted to you based on your profile, and the business will receive from the website detailed information about the number and type of users who view the ad.

Do Social Networking Sites Obey Privacy Laws?

Although we have not yet had a case to confirm this, it is very possible that the failure to give users adequate control over their privacy settings may violate Canadian privacy law. In addition, the access granted to third party applications may also violate Canadian privacy law. To the extent that advertisers use personal information of users without their consent – which appears to be common – that, too, is violation.

These sites are very new and may be able to rely on the fact that the user voluntarily posts his or her personal information to the site. Nevertheless, many of the ways that personal information is used and disclosed by the sites once it is posted by the user is certainly questionable.

In May, 2008, a public interest advocacy group filed a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
against Facebook on the grounds that it’s privacy policy violates the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

How to Protect your Privacy on Social Networking Sites

  1. Never give out information like your birthday, full name, phone number, Social Insurance Number or address. This information is a gift for identity thieves and other criminals.
  2. Consider joining a closed network rather than an open one.  Find out if others can see your profile without your consent and if possible change your privacy settings.
  3. Choose the most restrictive security settings available.
  4. Don’t use third party applications unless you can be sure that you can opt-out.
  5. Don’t expect total privacy. Read the privacy statement and policies to learn how much control the site will give you. Some sites allow all registered users to view all the information you post on your site with no exceptions.
  6. Most sites are subject to search warrants and other forms of legal compulsion and will make personal information available to authorities if required by law to do so. 

Additional Resources

  • (1) Facebook permits third party developers to make their own software available on social networking sites to be downloaded by users and used on the site. The applications available include such things as games, dating applications, greeting card applications, dancing penquins, erotic pictures, file sharing applications and much more.