Duke 'sex list' highlights weakness of online privacy

October 8, 2010 5:49:29 PM PDT
A recent Duke grad probably thought she was sending something funny to close friends, now millions know the intimate details of her sex life.

Major national media organizations like NBC and the New York Times have descended on the Duke campus since Karen Owen's bogus senior honors thesis was posted by the websites Deadspin.com and Jezebel.com.

The topic has become one of the hottest search topics on the Internet - generating millions of page views for the sites that posted the document.

According to published reports, Owen e-mailed the PowerPoint file entitled "An education beyond the classroom: Excelling in the realm of horizontal academics" to a couple of close friends.

Someone in that group apparently forwarded it on to others, and before long the media got wind of it.

In the 42-slide PowerPoint, Owen describes - and ranks - the sexual performance of 13 current and former Duke students who are all varsity athletes.

Owen has not responded to interview requests, but told Jezebel.com in an e-mail that her comments were never intended for a wide audience.

"I regret it with all my heart," Owen told Jezebel. "I would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned on that."

The scandal has revived concerns about the public perception of Duke - much damaged after the Duke Lacrosse case got national attention.

But Duke officials say the people involved are their top concern.

"Our foremost concern is to provide for the well-being of our students, and to respect their privacy," said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s Vice President for Public Affairs. "We’ve been reaching out to those who’ve been affected by this incident and will continue to support them."

If nothing else, the case highlights just how tenuous privacy can be online. Something you e-mail to a friend or coworker that you think will stay private may not, and there are also many pitfalls on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter.

Experts say the best defense is to keep in mind that anything you e-mail or do on a social network site is not necessarily private - and to act accordingly.

For more information on how to protect your privacy online, click here to check out these tips from Microsoft.

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