Jennifer Porter is a little freaked out.
The 17-year-old is hunkered over a sheaf of papers scattered across a Tim Hortons table in Ajax, Ont., one hand flipping pages, the other twirling an oversized blue earring."That's kind of creepy," she said.
What she's looking at is quite the biography - everything from her cellphone number, home address and a map to her work.
She sits with myriad details of her life, furnished by me, a Globe and Mailreporter, who found Ms. Porter's profile on Facebook and then reconstructed her life using nothing but freely available websites, such as Google Maps and Canada411.com.
Aside from knowing where she lives, where she works and where she will soon rest her head, our investigation also turned up her home and cellphone numbers, and when she's turning 18. Oh, and pictures, too. She's shocked that someone she has never met could learn so much about her.
"It's funny because when you called, I was having dinner with my boyfriend. He asked who it was and I said I had no clue but he got my cellphone number off Facebook," she said.
Canadians are embracing social-media sites online at a breakneck pace. According to the most recent data from comScore Inc., nearly 17 million Canadians have a Facebook profile, 4.5 million are on MySpace, 14.5 million visit YouTube every month, 3.6 million upload photos to the sharing site Flickr.com. Social networkers use these resources to help shape their identity, essentially branding themselves and sending their public image around the world.
But the exposure comes at a price.
While our digital footprint expands, privacy erodes. More and more, social networkers who are not obsessively careful face the prospect of identity theft, inadvertently marring their own reputation or even inviting the threat of physical harm. As the dangers broaden, so too do the reactions: Provincial and federal governments are taking the lead in educating users and probing whether social networks are really doing all they can to protect privacy.
While all of these social-networking sites offer varying degrees of security and privacy protection - such as restricting who can view certain parts or the entirety of their profile - many users leave the drapes open. Whether by ignorance or simply a willingness to trust their private details to the public, they leave their photos, blog postings and personal information freely available for anyone to discover with a few clicks of a mouse.
During a two month-long investigation, The Globetracked more than a dozen Canadians through their open social-networking profiles, employing only freely available Web tools to build profiles of each individual user.
Most of the information is minutiae, details that, taken alone, don't amount to much. Yet when compiled in one or two places, a casual observer can develop a rudimentary image of a subject in a few clicks.
For example, there's the 23-year-old Oakville, Ont., woman who posted her home phone number on an open Facebook profile. Plug the number into Canada411.com for a reverse address search, and you'll find her home address, which you can then search on Google Maps and see she lives on a quiet suburban street near the Queen Elizabeth Way. More personal, she's "addicted" to the MTV show The Hills, loves Dr. Pepper and sometimes wears contact lenses.
Although some experts argue that young adults and the so-called Me Generation somehow see the world differently than their parents, just as many are convinced today's teens and young adults are fundamentally the same as previous generations.
"The reality is that young people are using this technology to do the same stuff that they've always done and that they've been doing offline for a long time," said Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online. "It has a lot to do with the culture at large, I don't think it's necessarily this generation."
Reality television shows that vault so-called ordinary people to unprecedented levels of stardom overnight reward the oversharing of personal details, she said. They have fostered a culture that accepts and condones this kind of behaviour, she added.
"We live in a culture that is saturated with reality television and this notion of everyday people looking in a camera and speaking to these invisible audiences that are out there and are sharing their personal feelings about their roommate or becoming the next top chef," she said. "That level of openness is what has been put out there by the media and the popular culture, and I think that in many ways, young people are reflecting that back ... whether it's on MySpace or YouTube."
It wasn't that long ago that the first thing an employer would do to vet potential hires was run the applicant's name through Google to see the extent of their online footprint. Now, most employers don't even bother with Google, they go straight for MySpace and Facebook to gauge the personality and professionalism of potential candidates.
As a result, an entire industry of companies specializing in cleaning up the mess that people create for themselves has sprung up. There are now dozens of online companies that will scour the Internet to clean up and monitor online reputations.
It's a service that is increasingly being employed by parents of recent university grads, to clean up their children's online reputation before they head out into the world in search of a job, said Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner.
According to her research, 77 per cent of employers check the social-networking profiles of young applicants before proceeding to the interview stage. As many as one-third of applicants will be rejected before they even get to an interview, based purely on what exists about them online.
Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace have made great strides toward beefing up privacy protection in their online communities, she said. Shortly after Facebook opened its service to anyone over the age of 13 in 2006, some of the company's top executives asked for a meeting with Ms. Cavoukian and her office to discuss privacy practices.
Unlike Canada, the United States doesn't have independent privacy commissioners whose responsibility it is to enforce privacy legislation, so often these U.S. firms seek out Canadian advice on privacy matters, she said.
But despite what some might argue, Ms. Cavoukian said, she doesn't believe privacy is a thing of the past.
"It's not that privacy is dead, it's that it's changing," she said. "It's being transformed in this new online world of ubiquitous data availability. The reason privacy is not dead and will never die is because privacy forms the basis of all of our freedoms and our liberty. People forget that ... if you look at it historically, the first thing that happens when a free and democratic society morphs into a totalitarian state is the loss of privacy."
Lack of online caution
If social networkers don't exercise a little caution online and apply strict privacy settings, millions of people can easily access any of the information they post - their cellphone number, home address or those photos from last week's drunkfest.
Here's a sample of what The Globe and Mail found after a quick scan of open social-networking profiles on Facebook, MySpace and Nexopia:
1) A 24-year-old Calgary woman posted her cellphone number, e-mail address and the name of the Kelowna motel where she and three of her friends were spending a June weekend partying.
2) To celebrate the end of school, a fourth-year University of Toronto student, who has a private Facebook profile, posted in public a map to his Collingwood, Ont., cottage and left his cellphone as the contact information.
3) A 20-year-old Edmonton man is one of several people who created a public event listing for their birthday, where they post any one, or all, of a home address, cellphone number, driving directions and other relevant information. 4) In addition to listing what seems like his entire life biography on Facebook - including his diehard passion for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts - a 20-year-old Ajax, Ont., man writes that his job at the Real Canadian Superstore is "pretty great in the summer and pretty terrible at christmas [sic]" The day he leaves will be "the happiest day EVER."
On the Web at globetechnology.com
Today: Part 1
Read the longer, enhanced version of this story online and listen to Globetechnology.com editor Michael Snider and reporter Matt Hartley discuss the genesis of the project in an exclusive audio feature.
Monday: Part 2
Report on Business: Matt Hartley looks at how social networks have affected consumer privacy and reports on the federal privacy commissioner's plans to safeguard consumer information.
Tuesday: Part 3
David Hutton reports on the efforts that one Canadian-based social network is making to root out underage users, who, studies show, can be far more revealing than older social networkers.
Join the Conversation at 1 p.m. ET with Matt Hartley to discuss privacy in the age of social networks.