I was aware of social-media dangers - but not enough

2013-01-29T00:00:00Z I was aware of social-media dangers - but not enoughDiane O'Meara Los Angeles Times Arizona Daily Star
January 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Earlier this month, when the website Deadspin.com broke the story of Manti Te'o's nonexistent girlfriend, I heard from several friends, all with some version of the same message: "That girl in the hoax photographs looks exactly like you."

There was a reason for that. The photographs were of me, though I had no idea until the story broke that they had been used to create a false identity for a woman who never existed, Lennay Kekua.

Here's how it happened.

As someone in my mid-20s, I am of the generation that uses social media to connect with friends, family and business associates. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: These are the ways we communicate. And like most of my generation, I didn't give a lot of thought to the word "friend" in the social media sphere. If someone sent me a friend request, more often than not, I accepted it. As a result, I found myself with a lot of friends, including some I barely knew. One of them was a guy I had only a passing acquaintance with, but who had gone to my high school.

I thought I had been careful with the privacy settings on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I kept up with Facebook's privacy policies and took advantage of privacy tools. My private profile was not searchable by anyone who was not a "friend of a friend." I even limited access to photos of me that were posted by other people and tagged on my profile.

But, as it turned out, that wasn't enough. One person abused that access. Many details remain unclear, but it now appears that the casual high school acquaintance whose "friend" request I accepted took my pictures, and they were used to create the fictitious persona of Lennay Kekua. The imaginary woman then became bait to hook a talented college football player, Manti Te'o, who became romantically interested in her. Ultimately, the scammer told Te'o the woman had died of leukemia, leaving the football player apparently heartbroken on the eve of a big game.

All that I've just described occurred without my knowledge, and I still can't quite believe it all happened.

A lot of the image theft would have been impossible if I'd been more selective about those I designated friends. Most of the photographs were simply copied from my postings by another social media user. But I also agreed, after the man now suspected of creating "Lennay Kekua" asked me repeatedly, to supply him with a photograph that wasn't on Facebook. He told me that he was trying to cheer up his cousin, who'd been nearly killed in a car accident. The cousin had seen my picture and thought I was pretty, and this man thought it would help his cousin's state to get a photograph of me. At the time, of course, I knew nothing of the whole Lennay Kekua affair. I sent a picture.

In the last week, I've shut down all my social media accounts. But I realize that's not a long-term solution. I use social media to connect with a network of friends and family, and with business associates. Giving this up is unrealistic.

I thought I was aware of the dangers and had done everything to protect myself. I now understand that the large corporations that control social media will never provide adequate protection by themselves. Users must take extraordinary steps to protect themselves.

Eventually, I'll go back to using social media. But I'll take an even more cautious approach.

Diane O'Meara is a media executive and wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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