Be aware of 5 Ps when posting to Facebook, says Ontario Privacy Commissioner

“Be very proactive about protecting your online privacy,” Ann Cavoukian is urging young people across the province.

Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner — as part of her outreach campaign — has visited several colleges and universities to speak to students about the privacy risks inherent in online activities.

The focus, she told, is on helping students understand options available to them to protect their privacy online.

“In our experience these face-to-face meetings with students and recent graduates are highly effective.”


Banning Facebook and Twitter at work could backfire, says Ontario Privacy Commissioner

Social net junkies … beware of what you post online

She said these youngsters, many of whom are entering the workforce for the first time, should realize nothing is ever deleted from the Internet, and whatever they post on social media sites could come back to haunt them.

“We teach them that privacy is about freedom of choice, and that they have control over how much personal information to post online, and who is granted access to it.

Given the widespread use of Facebook by young Canadians, many of Cavoukian’s tips deal with postings to this site. But the same principles and best practices would apply to other on other social networks as well, she said.

“Specifically, we encourage them to consider the 5 Ps.”

These relate to who may view their postings online, and whether they are comfortable with their information being accessed by these groups.

Paying attention to the 5 Ps, Cavoukian said, could have vital implications — not just for privacy — but sometimes even for one’s physical safety. The 5 Ps are:


“You wouldn’t want your own kids, or anyone for that matter, posting information to Web 2.0 sites that makes them personally identifiable or draws people back to a physical address or location, where they can find someone.”

Across North America various jurisdictions are trying to minimize the threat posed by sexual or other types of predators scouring social networking sites.

In some cases legislation is seen as the antidote. For instance, in August 2009, the state of Illinois passed two new laws designed to restrict sex offenders use of technology.

One of these laws, which takes effect January 1, makes it a felony for a registered sex offender to use social networking sites.

The idea behind the legislation, said a state senator who sponsored it, is to get registered sex offenders to keep their Internet distance as well as their physical distance.

Law suits seeking to hold social networking sites liable for content posted by their members haven’t met which much success.

A couple of years ago, in Texas, the courts tossed out a $30 million lawsuit filed against MySpace by the parents of a teenage girl, Julie Doe.

Doe’s parents said their daughter was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she met on The case was dismissed by the District Court of Western Texas, which ruled that that both Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and Texas law barred the Does’ claims. A year later, the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.


Cavoukian said many parents she’s spoken to are concerned about their kids activities on social networking sites.

She said some of these youth are recent university graduates, and their parents are “worried sick” about how all the information they’ve put on a myriad social networking sites would affect their career prospects.

She said she knows of parents who — to clean up their kids online reputations go to firms such as Reputation Defender.

Reputation Defender says its services include “searching out information about you and your family throughout the Internet and [presenting] it to you in a clear and easy-to-understand fashion.”

The firm also says it helps remove “inaccurate, inappropriate, hurtful and slanderous information” about clients and their families (at the client’s request). “The same mission extends to your personally identifiable information [such as] your name, address and phone number.”

Cavoukian didn’t want to comment on the advisability of using “reputation building” services. However, she noted that it’s crucial that youngsters take responsibility for protecting their own privacy.

To support this effort, she said, her office has produced several resources, specifically aimed at Facebook users. These include:

When Online Gets Out of Line: Privacy – Make an Informed Online Choice, a brochure which encourages university, college and high school students to carefully consider their privacy options before posting their personal information online.

How to Protect your Privacy on Facebook, a tip sheet which outlines detailed steps on how to set privacy settings on Facebook to the optimal level of protection.  

Reference Check: Is Your Boss Watching? Privacy and Your Facebook Profile, another tip sheet, which warns Facebook users that information they post on their profile can be searched by current and prospective employers.


Youth often experience the negative consequences of their Web 2.0 posting, not just when they enter the workforce, but while they’re still at college or university, Cavoukian noted.

“Students have lost scholarships because of information in their Facebook accounts; they have failed courses and grades.”

University Affairs – a magazine for and about Canada’s university community – documents some of these instances.

It  an article titled ‘The wild web’ it relates the case of a Brandon, Manitoba teen who might have been the first person to be charged with impersonation related to social networking, after posing as one of his teachers on Facebook. “In Edmonton, 24 junior-high school students were expelled or suspended for posting profiles in the guise of two teachers on the web site Nexopia.”

The article also recalls how, in 2007, a first-year engineering student at Ryerson University organized a Facebook group, an online bulletin board where classmates shared answers. “Ryerson said this amounted to cheating, while the student – who was eventually punished but not expelled – maintained that the group was nothing more than a library study group taken online.”

Prospective and current employers

Cavoukian rued the fact that many youngsters are unaware of the impact their postings on sites such as Facebook could have on their career prospects.

“Studies show many as 77 per cent of all employers check the profiles of potential job candidates on Facebook. A third of them reject you categorically, just based on what they see in your profile. So this is a huge cause for concern. My advice to recent grads is: clean up your profile.”

She said job seekers – when they look at their postings on Web 2.0 sites – should put themselves in the shoes of a hiring manager. 

“Take a look at your Facebook profile, where you have all these party shots. People may be doing things that are commonly done at parties, but may not be something you want to advertise. It doesn’t look good if you’re applying for a job and you want to be viewed as responsible.”


The final “P” to take not of is the police, she said.

Today police forces the world over today commonly use online social profiles as a very effective mechanism to detect crime, she said. “So youth should be very careful and educate themselves on the privacy settings available on Facebook.”

Cavoukian said when talking to youngsters who’ve entered the workforce, and college or university students, she doesn’t give them a laundry list of dos and don’ts.

“But I do make them aware of the privacy settings available on Facebook. There are excellent controls that let you lock this up and determine whether you want to reach three people or thirty or three hundred. You be the one to make the decision as opposed to just letting thing be as they are – without any control. Take control – that’s my message to them.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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