Social media isn’t just a way to share information with friends. Each time someone logs in and posts on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, that information is being stored. Everyone knows these big companies in California are taking some of that data and using it for advertisements and other things, but those very computers that are being used are also storing information.
And that’s exactly what the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus is studying.
“We are investigating to see when a user accesses or logs in to his or her account on one of these social media platforms, what types of personal information are saved in their computer?” said Ahmad Ghafarian, a professor of computer science at UNG.
They’re doing work that plays to both sides of the coin, though. On one hand, Ghafarian and a group of students are researching what information criminals could have access to and what steps to take to ensure they’re not able to gain access to it.
But they’re also researching the best ways for law enforcement to find that same information in the event that they need to track down a criminal’s illegal or malicious activity.
“We're trying to help law enforcement or forensic investigators to find ways to gather information easily and correctly,” said Deniz Keskin, senior cybersecurity major at UNG. “We're trying to get this information because there's lots of dangerous people, lots of criminals using these social networks.”
Ghafarian received a grant to hire a few students to start the study. It’s something he said is important because with social media’s prominence in society, there needs to be concrete information on how to use it.
“We are planning to create a framework to see what are the best practices for a user to use those social media activities,” Ghafarian said.
The concrete research results may be more convincing to some.
“I may say to someone, ‘Don't do this or don’t do that,’ but that's not enough,” Ghafarian said. “If you provide the hard scientific evidence, that if you do this, this is what’s going to happen, then it may be more effective.”
As part of their research, students created multiple social media accounts. They’d post, message and respond to each other after logging in. After a specified time of activity, they captured the computer’s memory and have been analyzing what information is stored on it.
So far, using forensic tools, they’ve found that computers store the user IDs, passwords, email and phone numbers — and the research is far from over.
While that information may not seem like a big deal, if someone accessed it with malicious intent, they could do a lot of damage.
“Every day, we carelessly open Facebook, Instagram and not care about what we do or what we put on it,” Keskin said.
So that’s the danger they’re studying and trying to help people avoid.
“If somebody can get your user ID, they can log in on your behalf and they may post something that may harm your reputation,” Ghafarian said.
Their next goal is to study how privacy settings on these social media sites affect the information that is stored in a computer’s memory. The grant runs out in December, but Ghafarian said it’s an ongoing study that will continue into the next semester.
“I just wish people realized their lives and information is out there and how easily that information can be manipulated,” Keskin said. “I wish everybody could realize that what they're putting out there is actually putting their lives in danger in a way they may not otherwise realize. It's kind of grim, but it is what it is.”