Beware the Trojan Horse that is Social Media

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

While establishing and maintaining an organizational presence on popular media websites and blogs (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), businesses need to be aware of the legend of Troy and its supposed downfall due to a Trojan Horse. Greek mythology states that Greek warriors concocted a scheme whereby they built a wooden horse and offered it as a gift to the Trojans. The Trojans, in their greed and arrogance, accepted the gift and brought it within their gates. Then, at night as the Trojans slept, the Greek warriors emerged from the belly of the Trojan horse and defeated the Trojans changing the course of a ten-year siege.

Today, a Trojan Horse is more often thought of as a destructive software program that disguises itself as a helpful application. Similarly, although social media may be helpful for your business, be aware what could be lying in the belly of that Trojan Horse.

Line Between Private vs. Public Blurred

According to the Socialnomics web site, Generation Y will outnumber baby boomers sometime this year and 90% of them have already joined an online social network. For many young people, and even 50 year-olds, the line between private and public has disappeared as they tweet, blog, text and share the minutiae of both their personal lives and everyone around them – including their employer. Social media users are under the mistaken assumption that they own the web content they are generating and can retrieve it and delete it if needed.

They are also under the mistaken impression that what they say is protected by some cocoon and that the content they generate is private. This is not true, as evidenced by a Detroit hospital worker who was terminated after she posted a comment on Facebook about a man she treated who was accused of killing a police officer. She was fired for violating strict patient privacy rules under the federal HIPAA law. A Massachusetts 54 year old high school teacher also learned this lesson when posting negative comments about her school community, students, and parents even though she had set the privacy setting on her Facebook account. Moreover, cases are clear that locking a profile from public access does not prevent discovery in litigation either.

Disclosure of Company Information at Risk

Given the fact that technology is moving so fast and disclosure is instantaneous, worldwide and permanent, companies need to train their employees on the dangers of purposeful or inadvertent disclosure of company information. What is at stake for the employer is the loss of confidential information and trade secrets, disclosure of protectable third party information or medical information, suits from other companies for disclosure of secrets, and discrimination suits. For instance, companies recruiting and hiring managers often use social media in order to obtain more information on a candidate than they otherwise could.

However, discrimination laws prohibit employers from making direct inquiries regarding gender, race and other protected factors in their hiring process. If a candidate is not hired, the employer could be subject to discrimination claims alleging that the decision was illegal and based on a protected characteristic. Some online companies, in fact, claim that the social media profiles they will sell you comply with discrimination laws. Similarly, doing social media checks on some employees but not others could also lead to issues. Unregulated monitoring of an employee’s online presence could also lead to privacy related claims. Finally, going to the other extreme, a manager providing a favorable recommendation for a terminated employee could wreck havoc on an employer’s defense in a discrimination suit.

Scrapers & Listening Companies

The information that online users share is not just among their friends but is unknowingly shared with Web tracking companies and advertisers as well. In fact, Facebook acknowledged that its popular application, FarmVille, had improperly shared identifying information about users and, in some cases, their friends with advertisers and Web tracking companies. Social networks are becoming the new public records. Scrapers and listening companies argue they are just being entrepreneurial in that they are only gathering information that is available online anyway- in effect USER BEWARE! U.S. Court rulings are contradictory with respect to scraping, the practice of retrieving data from output from other programs.

People search websites, including Intelius, Inc., offer services that include criminal background checks. “Date Check” promises details about prospective dates for $14.95. Bringing it back to your business, some outfits such as will scrape a million Web pages for $101. In fact, one Utah company,, offers scraping software for free. Beware:  if your competitors are not buying your business, they may be stealing it from you by scraping your company.

Bottom Line:  Companies & Users Beware

What is even more disturbing, is that the cyber-criminals who invade social networks to infiltrate your private computer are now invading your work and corporate computers as well. In short, Companies and Users Beware: Social Media can be a Trojan Horse.

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