Shedding light on dark side of social media

As the monster known as social media spreads its tentacles, members of law enforcement want to educate the public about its sinister underbelly.

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Facebook's reported reach of 1.55 billions users in 2015 quadruples the entire U.S. population.

Like many drugs, technology can foster addiction and abuse, according to James A. Dill, who spent 30 years in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. Dill, the speaker at a recent daylong Chester County law-enforcement seminar, cited dozens of examples from national headlines to prove his point.

A 26-year-old Illinois resident dubbed the “Twitter Pimp” was arrested in 2012 for using social media to recruit children for sex trafficking.

In 2014, a California woman was charged after using spyware products that enabled her to eavesdrop on another person’s conversations.

A University of Kansas student was held hostage this year and beaten for six days by a man she met on Tinder, a dating app.

A Canadian teen committed suicide in 2012 after being blackmailed into exposing herself on a webcam.

A woman in Ohio was arrested in 2016 after she used the live-streaming app Periscope to broadcast a rape her friend was committing, telling police she got caught up in all the “likes” she was receiving.

Internet growth continues to explode. Facebook reportedly logged 1.55 billions users in 2015. “That’s four times the population of this country,” Dill noted.

Google, which also operates Google+, has increased its reach with YouTube.

Google, which also operates Google+, has increased its reach with YouTube.

As those figures continue to rise, the number of companies controlling massive amounts of data continue to shrink, Dill said, explaining that Facebook, Google and Twitter keep swallowing up ancillary services. Twitter bought Periscope, Google purchased YouTube, and Facebook now owns WhatsApp and Instagram, among others.

In the process, these giant corporations are collecting mind-boggling amounts of data from their users, Dill said.

“You’ll never see a teen getting an ad for Depends on Facebook,” Dill said, stressing the importance of being stingy with personal information and judicious in your acceptance of online “friends.”

Dill’s presentation, entitled “The Darker Side of Technology: Human Trafficking, Sexting and Sextortion and Swatting” occurred courtesy of the Chester County STOP Grant Project. Its sponsors included the Chester County Commissioners, the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, the Chester County District Attorney’s Office, the Domestic Violence Center of Chester County, and police associations.

Although the presentation was given to members of law enforcement, a group that included police officers, prosecutors, probation officers and deputy sheriffs, Dill said members of the public could benefit from knowing about the dangers lurking beneath the Internet’s positive uses.

For example, families need to make sure they are not issuing an invitation to crooks by posting vacation photos during their trips. “That’s a burglar’s dream come true,” said Dill. “Wait till you’re home to post them. Otherwise, you’re proclaiming: ‘This house is empty.’”

The ability to track locations is becoming easier, he said. With the Internet of Things (IOT), more inanimate objects, such as cars, fitness trackers, medical sensors and appliances, are connecting to the Internet. He said a colleague thought she was sharing her running routes with a friend through a fitness device only to learn that someone had masqueraded as the friend, who didn’t even own a fitness tracker.

The uses for Twitter can vary from helping people avoid a traffic jam to ensnaring them in a sex-trafficking ring.

The uses for Twitter can vary from helping people avoid a traffic jam to ensnaring them in a sex-trafficking ring.

Photos can also be problematic, he said. Many smartphones embed geo-data into the photos, which then get uploaded to sites such as Flickr or Picasa, where someone with nefarious motives could use the shot to find others taken by the same person, images that could eventually lead to a residence. To prevent this, Dill advises turning off “location services” on the phone’s camera and removing the exchangeable image file format (EXIF) information on the photo-sharing site.

Of the more than 130 million images containing child pornography that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children examined since 2002, one in four was initially posted by the minors themselves, Dill said.

He added that young people’s sexting, derived by combining sex and texting, continues to skyrocket, fueled by peer pressure and failure to recognize the long-term consequences. A 2013 poll of 500 children found that 60 percent had been asked to send a sexual image and 38 percent complied, Dill said.

Parents need to educate themselves and their children, who can also be victimized by sextortion, which occurs when they are blackmailed into performing sex acts online. Human trafficking often gets its start with sextortion. In 78 cases reviewed by the Brookings Institute, investigators found 1,397 victims, Dill said, adding that prosecutors estimate the total number of victims may be as high as 6,500.

Dill said some teens, who have grown up with technology, have myriad ways to fool parents, such as using dual social network profiles, clearing browser history, and using a proxy server. Parents should familiarize themselves with some of the acronyms that teens use, such as GNOC (get naked on camera), PIR (parent in room) and KPC (keeps parents clueless.)

Stressing that social media is not a fad, but rather a fundamental shift in the way people communicate, Dill said it’s important for people to proceed with caution when sharing information and to know what’s out there. He referenced dozens of sites that specialize in everything from connecting sex partners to fostering anonymous global chats to encouraging cyberbullying.

Dill acknowledged that Facebook and other social media sites offer a fantastic tool for staying in touch with friends and family, as long as they are used intelligently. He said the fastest-growing demographic on Twitter is the 55- to 64-year-old age bracket while Facebook and Google+ show the highest growth among 45- to 54-year-olds, generations that are struggling to keep up with their children and grandchildren.

“Use social media with your eyes open,” he said, adding that he’s learned to fear Facebook more than the National Security Administration.

Like most of the people who participated in the seminar, Chester County Deputy Sheriff Janis Pickell said she learned some things she didn’t already know. She said she appreciated Dill’s emphasis on knowing what’s out there so that you can be informed and proactive.

“You can never have too much education,” Pickell said. “It’s particularly important for parents to know how to protect their children.”

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