Written By Lisa Breslin
When Liberty High School seniors Elise Gamertsfelder and Annie Luebke looked at the results of their Facebook project for an Advanced Placement (AP) Statistics class, they were horrified. Then they dashed to their personal Facebook accounts and deleted all the “friends” they didn’t really know.
The two classmates, Carroll County residents who are now college freshmen at Susquehanna University College and University of Pittsburgh respectively, last year launched a project for their statistics class to test the hypothesis that high school freshmen are more likely to accept online strangers into their Facebook accounts than sophomores, juniors and seniors.
They were not sure what horrified them the most: the fact that their hypothesis was proved wrong, or the fact that within two hours, students’ almost blind trust within the Facebook domain gave Gamertsfelder and Luebke easy access to incredibly private information.
“We had access to cell phone numbers,” said Luebke. “We knew when people were going out of town. We were creeped out by how we got into people’s lives so easily.”
Facebook is an online social network that boomed from a Harvard dorm room novelty to a 1,400-person corporation based in Palo Alto, California, with revenue that could top $1 billion in 2010, according to David Kirkpatrick in his book, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
“Facebook is all information all the time,” wrote Kirkpatrick. “Each month about 20 billion pieces of content are posted there – by members – including, among many things, web links, news stories, photos – etc. It’s by far the largest photo-sharing site on the Internet, for instance, with about 3 billion photos added each month… not to mention the innumerable trivial announcements, weight pronouncements, political provocation, birthday greetings, flirtations, invitations, insults, wisecracks, bad jokes, deep thoughts, and, of course, pokes [the equivalent of electronic winks].”
When their statistics teacher, Kevin Giffhorn, encouraged the class to select a project that interested them, Gamertsfelder and Luebke chose Facebook because, as Luebke noted, “we knew Facebook findings would be applicable to our generation and generations to come.”
For their project, they created a fake female profile and joined a network by describing their fictitious student as a junior attending a Carroll County high school.
After noting the student’s interests, religious and political views, and uploading a nondescript photo among a group of friends, Gamertsfelder and Luebke sent out “friend requests” to 140 students who also belonged to the network: 35 students from each grade at Westminster High School.
Within two hours, 70 students had accepted the requests. Within one week, the fictitious Facebook student had 115 friends. That gave the fake person access to friends’ Facebook pages and, in many cases, reams of personal information.
“We were surprised by the number of kids who blindly accepted, said Gamertsfelder. “So few questioned us, and we could then see everything about them.”
“If they thought they had just one mutual friend – they immediately trusted someone else: someone fictitious,” Luebke said.
The phony Facebook friend got three “friend requests”: one from another girl from this region, one from a boy in college and another from a boy in middle school.
“We went in assuming that freshmen would be more trusting, but the stats revealed that trust was not linked to grade levels,” said Gamertsfelder.
Their findings were a wake-up call, not only for them but their peers, said law enforcement officials and their teacher.
“It amazed me how quickly students circumvent any possible security requirements that Facebook put on their website,” said Giffhorn, the students’ teacher. “I hope the findings of this project serve as a wake-up to both students and parents to be wary of people they connect with on the internet.”
Reports of incidents involving Facebook and other social networking internet groups have increased, according to Corporal Gary Mounts, with Maryland State Police’s Computer Crime Unit and a detective for Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC). Most frequent tips are linked to online solicitation and harrassment.
“We hope that parents or anyone concerned about activities linked to Facebook or any other social network will contact one of several cyber tip lines that have been established,” said Mounts. “If there is immediate harm – for example, parents and friends suspect that a child is being asked to meet someone – they should call local or state law officials immediately.”
Mounts estimated that he and the other two investigators with the Maryland State Police’s Computer Crime Unit spend approximately an hour each day investigating computer-related crimes linked to social networking.
“I had 800 Facebook friends at one point. That’s obnoxious. I don’t know 800 people,” said Gamertsfelder. “After the project, we both skimmed through our contacts and got rid of more than half of them. It’s weird, now I’m stingy about whom I accept.”
“Our project should also alert people who have the appropriate filters – they should be proud,” said Gamertsfelder.
Additional information: Internet Crimes Against Children – Maryland State Police Jurisdiction: Lt. John Wilhelm , (410) 953-8260 (410) 953-8260; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Social Networking Alerts
- Keep these things in mind when taking advantage of the positive aspects of social networking. Here is how you can protect yourself on a social networking web site:
- If the site allows it, limit access to your profile. Do not allow strangers to learn everything they can about you. It is just not safe.
- Keep your private information private. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number, financial information or schedule. Such data will make you vulnerable to identity thieves, scams, burglars, or worse.
- Choose a screen name that is different from your real name. Avoid using any personal information that would help someone identify or locate you offline.
- Think twice before posting your photo. Photos can be used to identify you offline. They can also be altered or shared without your knowledge.
- Do not post information that makes you vulnerable to a physical attack. Revealing where you plan to meet your friends, your class schedule, or your street address is an open invitation for someone to find you.
- Use your common sense. If you are contacted by a stranger online, find out if any of your established friends know the person, or run an online search on him or her (You can use these strategies to your own benefit). If you agree to meet the individual, make it in a public place and invite others to join you.
- Trust your instincts. If you feel threatened or uncomfortable during an online interaction, do not continue the dialogue. Contact the police.
- Be suspicious. Do not take any information you receive from a new online contact at face value. The Internet makes it easy for people to say or do things they would never say or do in public or in face-to-face interactions. Protecting yourself is the smart thing to do.