UK online safety expert proposes Pet Society feature as dangerous to children

Scam Detections blog image
Scam Detections blog image

Playfish might want to take a break from its London headquarters and head to Wrexham for a chat with Charles Conway. Conway, a self-touted "online safety expert," has been making rounds in North Wales and North West England telling people that Pet Society is encouraging "stranger danger" in kids.

He alleges that the game exposes them to real-world contact with "murderers, rapists and pedophiles." While those passionate about Facebook games might want to write off Conway as a professional fearmonger, Conway may have a point, because he's actually played the game.

A professional web designer by trade, Conway runs the Clear as Crystal web firm. He then started the Scam Detectives website with his wife Christine in Jan. 2010, claiming "over a quarter of a million visitors around the world" since its inception. In March 2011, he released an ebook titled, "Scammers, Spammers & Social Engineers: A Scam Detectives guide to keeping your business safe online", available on the Amazon Kindle for $9.99. A month later, he wrote a tech column in Euro Weekly News. Lastly, Scam Detectives was also shortlisted for the 2011 Nominet Internet Awards in the category of "Making the internet safer", although it didn't win.

While Conway also names FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and CityVille in his lecture on Facebook games, he uses Pet Society's social features to build his strongest case. We've all known about the "Cafe" in Pet Society, a location in the game where everyone can go to show off their pets and their pets' homes.

Charles Conway Pet Society BunnyPig
Charles Conway Pet Society BunnyPig
Pet Society Go to Profile
Pet Society Go to Profile

By being in the Cafe, you're bound to meet strangers. Even though all you can do once you get to another pet's home is some pre-set actions (e.g. hug, kiss, dance, laugh, and punch), there's also the option to visit the real Facebook profile of a someone you might not know at all. Conway demonstrated this by creating an avatar named "BunnyPig" to demonstrate to a group of foster care and social workers.

Because Facebook games require players to have lots of friends to earn virtual money and goods, Conway concludes that kids will be tempted to friend strangers. And in turn, he estimates that malevolent strangers can scope out kids who play the game. This "Go to profile" option is clearly a valid concern and does exist in the game.

So far, I could find no options within Pet Society to turn off this feature. However, Pet Society players can secure their Facebook profiles within the "Privacy Settings" menu beneath the "Account" tab on the Facebook home page. Just because a stranger can visit a kid's profile, doesn't mean a stranger will see much if their profiles are locked in Friends Only mode.

It's also entirely possible that this feature is only available for the adults who play the game. But as we've proven before, even if that is the case, kids under 13 years-old could still lie to Facebook about their age just to have a Facebook account.

In an ironic twist, Conway actually hosts several online games on his Scam Detectives website. However, these are simple Flash-based web games designed to teach and quiz players about online security. So there are no social elements involved in these games and they could be played anonymously.

(Editor's Note: This article and its headline was edited for clarity, and now clarifies how users can secure their Facebook profiles.)

[Hat-tip: PR Fire]

Is Charles Conway just another fearmonger? Do you think Pet Society players should be able to disable the Cafe? Share with us in the comments. Add Comment

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