Facebook, a group of free online communities, has become so ubiquitous that “facebooking” someone – as in checking out their photo and personal profile online – is standard campus lingo. But some student put so much detailed, personal information on Facebook – including cellphone numbers, physical addresses and even racy photos – that some universities have begun to question whether it poses privacy and security risks, including student harassment. Any backlash could give Facebook, Inc., a black eye just as it is ramping up it’s operations, raising venture capital and hiring more staff. “I'm floored at some of the (information) students put up about themselves” said Lori Zientara Edgeworth, an administrator at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Edgeworth says she has seen photos posted of underage students drinking at parties. She also has handled disciplinry cases related to Facebook, most of them sparked by students who felt threatened about comments or photos posted about them or classmates online. Other colleges are exploring ways to limit students’ exposure to Facebook. Last summer, the University of New Mexico, citing possible security breaches of the schools computer systems, banned students from accessing Facebook from university computers. In October, the University of Virginia sent an email warning students to “use caution” when cruising sites like Facebook. The University of Missouri recently formed a task force to address privacy issues linked to Facebook. One particular concern: Some students use Facebook to broadcast their whereabouts at all times, a habit that some students and school officials fear could lead to stalking. Though she hasn't faced such problems herself, 18 year old Leigh Hoffman, a University of Toledo freshman from Montvale, New Jersey, says some of her female
friends have had unwanted male visitors show up at their dorm rooms after posting personal information on Facebook. Jim Breyer, a Facebook board member and a partner at venture-capital firm Accel Partners, says privacy and security issues are discussed “at every meeting” of Facebooks board and are taken very seriously. The company says it is now drafting a more detailed “community standards” policy that defines offensive content. “We are absolutely committed to free expression on Facebook,” says Chris Kelly, the company's chief privacy officer, who assumed the recently created position in September. However, Facebook does remove some offensive content from the site if it is brought to the company's attention, he says. Content that might violate the site’s standards policy include nudity, hate speech, or photos of illegal activity such as drug use. Founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard student, Facebook is now the 9th-most popular Web property in the U.S. as measured by page views. The Palo Alto, California, company that sells advertising space on its site, says it now has nearly 5,900,000 users, up from one million a year ago. In October, the site had nearly 3.4 billion page views and 9.5 million unique visitors, according to research firm comScore Media Metrix. In April, Accel invested $12,700,000 in Facebook and the company is one of Silicon Valley's most talked-about start-ups, even though it has not turned a profit. College students say Facebook is an easy way to keep tabs on friends and keep up with campus goings-on. Facebook is also “a way to know more about people before you meet them," says Miles Prowse, 19, who will be attending Pepperdine University in January but already has a Facebook account through his new college email address.
To use the site and view profiles of other classmates in their college, students at more than 2,000 participating universities simply must have a university email address ending in “.edu.” Students at Harvard, for instance, can only access full profiles of fellow classmates with a harvard.edu account. Officials at Facebook, still run by Mr. Zuckerberg, who is twenty-one years old, stress that this requirement makes it difficult for people not affiliated with a college to log on. But college administrators point out that its not hard to get an “.edu” address, since faculty, staff and alumni of colleges often have them and can share them with friends. Students can restrict who sees their Facebook profile by blocking certain individuals. Facebook information is also excluded from results at popular search engines like those run by Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. “We would never say that any system is perfectly secure,” says Kelly. “But its certainly better than having no authentication at all.” Some concerns about Facebook from university administrators, he adds, “come from a misimpression that because they can get to these (Facebook) profiles, that anybody, anywhere can. And thats just not true.” Students can access only limited information, such as name and college affiliation, about those at other colleges. An off-campus pal officially designated as a “friend” on Facebook, however, can view full profiles of people attending other schools. Facebook's popularity has prompted other concerns among college administrators. While many say they will investigate illegal or inappropriate conduct depicted on Facebook that is brought to their attention, some wonder if they should proactively patrol the site for cases of misconduct. At Penn State University, police were able to use photographic evidence from
Facebook to help nab more than fifty students who violated university policy by swarming the football field after a game with rival Ohio State on October 8. But Tyrone Parham, Penn State’s assistant director of police operations, says his department doesn't plan on trolling the site to find students who might be guilty of other offenses. “We don't have the time and the resources to sit on the Web looking at Facebook all day” he says. Facebook recently expanded into the high-school market, where schools don't usually have their own email suffixes, like colleges. To maintain security and limit membership on the site, Facebook requires every new high-school user to be specifically invited by a college student who all ready has a Facebook account. Once on a high-school Facebook site, students can talk to fellow clasmates, but they have no access to any college sites.