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4.5 million young Brits’ futures could be compromised by their electronic footprint

As many as four and a half million young people (71%) would not want a college, university or potential employer to conduct an internet search on them unless they could first remove content from social networking sites, according to new research by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

But almost six in 10 have never considered that what they put online now might be permanent and could be accessed years into the future.

The research findings are unveiled as the ICO launches a youngpeople new website (opens in new tab) to help young people understand their information rights.

The report comes as the latest Social Network related ruckus surfaced. A web rant on Facebook got a policeman in trouble according to this Morning's Metro newspaper.

The Guardian also revealed that Online Investigations (opens in new tab) into potential candidates could be made illegal.

The first section contains tips and advice on safe social networking.

As well as not thinking ahead before posting information on the web, the survey of Britons aged 14-21 also revealed that youngsters’ online behaviour is a gift to potential fraudsters.

Two thirds (eight in 10 girls aged 16-17) accept people they don’t know as ‘friends’ on social networking sites and over half leave parts of their profile public specifically to attract new people.

More than seven in 10 are not concerned that their personal profile can be viewed by strangers and 7% don’t think privacy settings are important and actively want everyone to see their full profile.

As for the data that young people make available, 60% post their date of birth, a quarter post their job title and almost one in 10 give their home address.

Couple this basic information with details that might be used to create passwords e.g. sibling’s name (posted by 23%) pet’s name (posted by a quarter of girls) and even mother’s maiden name (posted by 2%) and fraudsters have the information they need to obtain products and services in a young person’s name or access existing bank or online accounts.

David Smith, Deputy Commissioner for the ICO, said: “Many young people are posting content online without thinking about the electronic footprint they leave behind.

The cost to a person’s future can be very high if something undesirable is found by the increasing number of education institutions and employers using the internet as a tool to vet potential students or employees.

The research also found that a third of young people have never read privacy policies on social networking sites and don’t understand how they can manage their personal information.

But when asked how they feel about websites potentially using their details to target advertising at them or to pass on to other websites or brands, a huge 95% are concerned about this, with 54% caring ‘a lot’ about how their personal information is used.

David Smith continues: “This shows that when young people are made aware that their details could be being passed between parties – legitimate or unscrupulous – they are worried. We have to help teenagers wise up to every aspect of the internet age they’re living in – it may be fun but unfortunately it is not the safe space many think it is.”

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.