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Watch What You Post!

Personal Web content can come back to haunt you

“People don’t realize how incredibly easy it is to collect and share information in cyberspace,” says Steve Santorelli, a former detective with Scotland Yard’s computer crime unit and now a director at Chicago-based Team Cymru, a group of nonprofit researchers who investigate some of the most notorious criminal gangs on the Internet.

“Even encrypted websites are not always safe,” Santorelli warns, noting that with the proliferation of spyware, key loggers, malware and password-cracking software, no one should expect privacy on the Internet.

Internet miscreants can easily mask themselves to access your social network profile, Santorelli adds. “If you add someone as a friend, how sure are you that person is who they claim to be? What stops someone from going onto Facebook or any of the social networking sites and creating an account to impersonate another individual?” [See also, “Scam Alert: False Friends on Facebook.”]

Caroline Fredrickson, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, which lobbies Congress on a host of privacy issues, is concerned about users’ willingness to share so much about themselves in cyberspace. It’s only a matter of time, she says, before our Internet identities clash with our real identities.

“We live in a very different world today,” Fredrickson says. “We may never restore our personal autonomy and privacy.”

 Legal consequences

North American courts are sending out a strong signal that there’s no such thing as privacy on the Web. What you post can be used as evidence. Much like a modern-day Twilight Zone episode, a strange phenomenon seems to be unfolding where a digital profile is more readily believed than the physical person.

New York police officer Vaughan Ettienne found out the hard way when he was the key witness in a recent trial. The accused, an ex-convict, was spotted on a stolen motorcycle weaving through traffic and chased down by Ettienne and his partner. The ex-con was further charged with possessing a loaded gun and a bag of ammunition.

The defendant claimed that the two cops beat him then planted the gun to explain his three broken ribs. His defense lawyer attempted to discredit Ettienne’s credibility by citing his content on MySpace and Facebook. His postings refer to his “devious” mood the day before the arrest and to watching the Denzel Washington movie Training Day a few weeks before that “to brush up on proper police procedure.” The problem for Ettienne and the prosecutor was that Washington plays the role of a rogue detective whose methods of enforcing the law are questionable, if not corrupt.

The defendant, already on parole for a burglary conviction, was acquitted of the more serious charges related to the gun possession and convicted of a misdemeanor for resisting arrest.

In an interview with the New York Times, Ettienne dismissed his online musings as “locker room” bravado. As he put it, “You have your online persona, and you have what you actually do on the street.”

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