Employers, marketers and parents accessing Facebook database

Editor’s note: The article is the second in a two-part series on who may be reading students’ Facebook profiles. Part one, which was printed Thursday, can be found in The Hatchet’s online archive.

With many students revealing addresses, cell phone numbers, schedules and sexual preferences on Facebook, they should be aware that employers, admissions offices, marketers and even parents are using the Internet for investigative purposes.

“We advise students to be careful about the type of public information and impression presented about them online since with the accessibility of technology their data can be shared globally and out of context,” said Marva Gumbs Jennings, the director of the GW Career Center.

Some students have already found out the hard way that they can be held responsible for what they say online and what is presented about them online.

At GW, a freshman living in Thurston Hall, who requested anonymity for fear of incriminating himself, said he got a call from his parents this fall after they discovered his Facebook page had numerous references to his drinking. The student said his parents also discovered a Facebook group dedicated to his habit of drinking excessively.

“They said that if I don’t clean up my act they would take me out of school,” the student said. “Now I have to monitor my Facebook profile so that I don’t compromise my academic career.”

And it’s not just parents checking online for information about students.

Robin Raskin, former editor of PC Magazine, told The Hatchet, “I know that college admissions offices and high school guidence counselors are Googling kids. It’s not a policy, but I know that it is done.” And with the addition of high school students to Facebook’s network, it may just be a matter of time before admissions offices use the site to research prospective students.

Raskin also said she knows of employers who use the Facebook to recruit workers, adding that her own son was contacted by an employer claiming to be an alumnus of his university.

“It’s dishonest advertising and dishonest recruitment,” Raskin said. Raskin also mentioned that she knows of marketers who have used their college alumni e-mail addresses to access Facebook.com, describing the site as “a marketer’s heaven.”

“Every marketer in America is going, ‘this is so great, a place where kids 18 to 24 congregate,'” Raskin said.

Facebook skeletons

But perhaps Facebook’s greatest effects won’t be seen for a few decades. Because students are able to post photos of their weekend exploits at sites such as Webshots, Yahoo and now Facebook, national elections could be a lot more interesting in 20 years.

At a school with as many political hopefuls as GW, many students should be aware that what they put online now could affect their chances of running for political office.

As has already been the case in recent presidential elections, once someone announces candidacy for higher office, the public microscope is immediately focused on everything they do, have done – including what’s online.

Because of the danger of having photos come back to haunt them, Dennis Johnson, associate dean of the GW Graduate School of Political Management, said students should be careful about what information they put online.

“If you’re 19 and you think you might want to be a congressman one of these days, watch out,” Johnson said.

“It’s all there and it can all be found,” Johnson added.

Though some argue that a potential explosion of incriminating photos found online could make future campaigns less focused on candidates’ histories, Johnson disagrees.

“On the contrary,” Johnson said. “There will always be people out there who are very skilled at picking apart what you’ve done and picking apart your ‘electronic dossier.'”

Protection

GW does not currently have any required seminars regarding Internet safety, but Alexa Kim, executive director of Technology Services Information Systems and Services, said the school provides a technology session at Colonial Inauguration and advises students to go to the Student Technology Services Web site to learn more about privacy on the Internet.

The Boston Globe reported in September that Brandeis University, Tufts University, Boston University and Boston College are all making an increased effort to teach students about Internet privacy.

Dean of Freshmen Fred Siegel, however, said he feels that GW should do more to encourage students to learn about online safety.

“I think that it is most important that we educate our students about online safety,” Siegel wrote in an e-mail last week. “Hopefully we can do more at CI, that is, even before our freshman class gets here to start the semester.”

“No time would be too soon and I look forward to working with my colleagues on this important initiative,” Siegel added.

Facebook’s stance

Some students who provide sensitive information about themselves should be aware that anything they post is being shared with a large community.

Facebook encourages its users to utilize privacy functions, which allow them to restrict which of the site’s other users can see their profiles.

The Web site, however, has clauses in its online privacy policy that allow it to sell users’ information to private third parties. In the privacy policy, users are given the option to request that Facebook not “share your information with third parties for marketing purposes.” It is unclear, however, whether this prevents Facebook from selling user information.

While Facebook representatives said they do not sell users’ information to third parties, the policy still gives the company the legal right to do so. The policy reads, “(The Facebook) may share your information with third parties, including responsible companies with which we have a relationship.”

“It is standard for Web sites to reserve the right to use their users’ information,” Chris Hughes, a spokesman for Facebook, wrote in an e-mail. “While we reserve this right, we do not sell our users’ information to outside groups.”

GW law professors said allowing an organization to give a third party information could be a dangerous area and a slippery slope to having personal information distributed to many different companies.

“This is always the problem with disclosing your info to any third party, usually you don’t retain rights,” said Orin Kerr, an associate law professor at GW.

“The primary concern is that once you give your info to one third party, it might end up with another,” Kerr added. “I would recommend students be cautious whenever they put information out there.”

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