You have your birthday listed on your Facebook profile, and at some point you got caught up in the local banking movement and decided to become a fan of your local credit union. In the friends list you have highlighted your family members, including your mother, whose profile is searchable under both her married and maiden names.

The decision to include that information is the result of three seemingly harmless and unrelated, split-second decisions. And in many cases, it's all an identity thief needs to empty out your checking account.

"Attackers can use this information to steal online identities, from bank accounts to email inboxes and social profiles. Not only are your accounts at risk, but you could be used as the vessel to disseminate spam and malicious profiles to your friends on Facebook," said Ellen Gomes, a spokeswoman for Barracuda Labs. "Many malicious profiles gain legitimacy among users, gathering 'friends', by having real 'friend' vouch for them, allowing these accounts to gain access to thousands of other accounts."

The success of Facebook as a company will ultimately hinge on how well it can use all of the information users share with it to help companies better target advertising. At the same time, all of that information can be used by thieves to access accounts or by other people to learn information about you that you had thought was private.

More Than Marketing Data

Take, for instance, the recent work of Peter Leone, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina's Center for Infectious Diseases. Leone is researching whether or not a person's circle of friends can predict whether they're at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Real-world social networks have long been known as a good way to determine a person's STD risk level, and Leone is showing online social networks can do the same.

In the hands of your doctor, determining whether you're at risk for STDs or other diseases is, generally speaking, a good thing. Your physician can advise preventative (and, usually, less expensive) treatments. But what if your health insurer starts using that same risk information to set your premiums? You are, in effect, being penalized for something that might happen.

With Apps Like That, Who Needs Enemies?

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, all these apps and, in particular, information we share on social networks, means we can expect to start seeing details about our religious, political and sexual preferences popping up in places where we don't expect them to - and in many cases, don't want them to - appear.

The newspaper reviewed 100 apps, including its own, to determine what kind of information users were sharing. Among the newspaper's findings:


  • "Popular quiz games "Between You and Me" and "Truths About You" sought dozens of personal details - including the sexual preferences of users and their friends - that don't appear to be used by the app in the questions it poses to users about their friends."

  • "The app that sought the widest array of personal information of the 100 examined, 'MyPad for iPad,' has a two-paragraph privacy policy that says it is 'adding Privacy settings shortly'," seemingly in violation of Facebook's privacy policy.

  • "Dozens of apps allow advertisers that haven't been approved by Facebook within their apps, which enables advertisers including Google to track users of the apps."

Education is the Only Remedy

Facebook and other social networks will have trouble keeping up with crooks and companies mining data for unscrupulous reasons. And every new security fix or policy change will mean more new workarounds for people who want to exploit your information.

The key, according to social media consultant Jay Patel, is user education.

"We have not yet developed a stringent system or moral acumen to control or comprehend the implications of this information that is publicly available," he said. "What we need to do is educate people on the implications of privacy policies and what it means to share personal information or make it public... [and provide consumers] the honest information of how their data will be used in simple, easy-to-understand terms before they share."

And any fix, Patel said, needs to avoid stifling all the potential good that could come from increased information sharing.

"In the coming five to 10 years, we will see innovators utilize this information in positive ways, such as education, knowledge distribution, pre-emptive measures against social or physical [viral] threats, and ways to measure public sentiment," he predicted.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.