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Web of deceit

01 Oct 2010

Social media is everywhere. Film stars tweet, merchants promote their wares via Facebook, comments and feedback are standard features on many websites and ‘going viral’ can generate massive amounts of publicity, either positive or negative. It is a free-for-all out there. But as in most rapidlyexpanding technologies, there are both threats and opportunities.The key point to understand about social media is that it contains raw, unedited content. There is absolutely no way to ‘spin’ what the masses tweet or post. Lies and innuendo have as much currency as the truth and in this electronic frontier, crooks, spammers and just plain idiots operate unhindered in an environment free of regulation.If you intend to use social media for business or personal purposes, you are opening yourself up to any number of possible scenarios, some good, some bad. There are many benefi ts, of course, otherwise social media wouldn’t be fl ourishing. You can keep in touch with friends, family and communities of interest, promote your products, services and opinions, and track trends and issues. But on the other hand, the more you put yourself out there, the more open you are to abuse.At the very least, if you are going to embrace social media as a marketing tool, ensure that you monitor what people post about you. If you have a feedback section, keep an eye on it and address any adverse comments as soon as they appear. Of course, all of this takes time. You’ll have to balance the benefi ts you get from ‘free publicity’ versus the amount of effort you’ll have to put in to keep up-to-date. Nothing is worse than out-dated content, especially when content’s currency is measured in minutes, not months.Privacy at stakePrivacy is another big challenge for social media users. And we’re not talking about arcane academic debates, but real life. A public opinion survey recently released by the Privacy Commissioner shows a dramatic rise in New Zealanders’ use of social networking, hand-in-hand with high levels of concern about individual privacy and risks to personal information on the internet. A majority 88% of people surveyed said they were concerned about the issue, including 72% who said they were “very concerned”. The problem is, that once you start to use social media – or even many of the online services that require registration – you are giving the world your email address. And once you start interacting with other social media users and providers, you are making yourself more of a target for the fl urry of sharp operators.Black Hat SEOA particularly juicy target for crooks and scammers is gamers, as ESET blogger David Harley reports:“Black Hat SEO (search engine optimisation) is used by malware authors to position the malicious links in the top results when a potential victim uses certain topical search terms. We’ve mostly seen this technique used to infect users of online games and, more recently, targeting the many millions of users of social networks who play games.“Malicious URLs turn up at or near the top of searches to do with gaming tricks, guides, weapons and a number of improvements, depending on the application. In addition, the text of the link promises users instant gratifi cation and increase in gaming advantage, cultivating the attention of gamers who want to take shortcuts to achieve immediately what might take others days.“Another technique that is in fashion is the development of what are passed off as hacks for social networking games. However, to achieve the promised advantages, the victim must execute a suspicious application, or copy javascript code or a URL into a browser, resulting in the download of malicious software applications targeting millions of users of games such as FarmVille or Mafi a Wars.” Ouch!Essential policy developmentMost security software packages, such as anti-virus, anti-spam and anti-malware, are optimised to defend prudent users and organisations, but technology alone is only part of the solution. Users (and managers) have to ensure that they engage in safe surfi ng and online behaviour. One of the decisions an organisation needs to consider is whether or not to allow access to social media sites. On the one hand, social media can give valuable insights into consumer and customer behaviour and provide ideas for products, marketing and public relations. On the other, social media use can burn up staff time and open the network to potential risks. It is a tricky balancing act, and one that must be approached with some caution.For resellers and retailers, selling your clients a security solution is only the fi rst step. Online security is a process, not a oneoff purchase. The best thing you can do for your clients is to help them understand the nature of the threats to their PCs, laptops, mobile phones and networks. Explain to them that careful online activities are as important as updated virus signatures.Invariably, if they do something silly online and get infected, they’ll blame you, the software, the ‘internet’ or everyone but themselves. So the more education you provide, the better for all concerned.