In what in many ways appears to be a case of tabloid sensationalism the Mail on Sunday yesterday “revealed” that the wife of the incoming head of MI6 Sir John Sawers, who is due to take over as chief of the Secret Inteligence Service in November, has had a Facebook profile.
The content of the profile that so outraged the Mail on Sunday were holiday photographs, photographs taken at an eightieth birthday party, the location of the couple’s London flat and the names of their three children.
Indeed the fact that this information had inadvertently been made public, so upset the Mail on Sunday that the newspaper made sure to publish copies of several of the photographs along with the names, professions, history, etc of many of the family friends and associates. Of course all of this after they had “alerted the Foreign Office” and the content had been removed from Facebook. Incidentally, is that Facebook information really all removed? Interestingly you get a new random selection of her Facebook friends when you refresh that page.
It was of course a mistake for Lady Shelly Sawers not to have adequately protected her personal information by using the privacy controls that Facebook provides. It is also interesting to note that Facebook are working hard to simplify and enhance those privacy controls as well as do away with regional networks. It was the fact the Lady Sawers had joined the London network and left her privacy settings at default values, that exposed her details to so many Facebook users.
Let’s take a second though, to put ourselves in the position of someone attempting to build a profile of Sir John Sawers, pretending that the Facebook gaffe never happened. I think that perspective on the issue may demonstrate how trivial the incident was, and how the issue of our online footprint extends way beyond social networking sites.
A quick Google search, leads me to Sir John Sawers Wikipedia entry, which gives me a full educational and career history, also the fact that he is currently a governor of the Ditchley Foundation. A list of his fellow governors, with whom he would of course have dealings is available here.
This report of a garden party at an embassy, gives me Sir John’s wife’s name, and photographs of her. A search on “Shelley Sawers” leads me here, to an email address I could use to contact her, and some more valuable information about a charitable institution she works with. More interesting family details including their children in this page served up from Google’s cache.
The point I am making is that this kind of information isn’t just shared over social networking sites, especially not when we are talking about prominent figures. In just a few minutes I was able to gather enough information to be able to craft an email. An email that purports to be from one of the accquaintances we just found, perhaps with a malicious, but ultimately credible attachment that I could use to send to the Sawers and begin logging all the keystrokes on their (hypothetically) now infected computer.
The lesson we can all take from this is that we are all far too free with our personal information online. Once something is posted, it is out of our control and should be considered public information. It pays to search the Internet for information about you, you may be surprised what turns up. If you find anything that concerns you, or that you would like removed it is often a simple matter of contacting the website to request removal.
For the future, before you post anything of a personal nature online, ask yourself this: “If a stranger called me on the telephone and asked for this information, would I tell them?”
If the answer is “No”, then step away from the mouse.