By Alfred Hermida
Assistant professor of journalism, University of British Columbia
Spare a thought for Ashley Alexandra Dupre. One day, the 22-year-old is an aspiring R'n'B singer, making ends meet by working as a prostitute named Kristen.
This photo of Alexandra Dupre is from a website
Next day, her life is public property as she is identified as the woman at the centre of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's sex scandal.
In the space of a few hours, journalists were able to uncover a wealth of information about her, from photos of her in a bikini to intimate personal details of her troubled childhood.
Her instant fame, or infamy, led Ms Dupre's lawyer to lash out at the media for thrusting his client into the limelight without her consent and publishing suggestive photos.
But she made it easy for journalists. Like so many young adults, she lived much of her life online, providing revealing personal information on social networking sites for anyone who cared to read it.
She had a page on MySpace under the username of ninavenetta in which she talked of her broken home and the reasons why she left home at 17. She also sold her songs on the music website, Amie St.
There is also a membership in her name dating back to January on RateMyBody.com, where she leaped up the rankings as her name hit the headlines.
Ms Dupre may have never expected journalists and bloggers to pore over everything she had ever uploaded to the web.
In the past, the media would have turned to family or friends to find personal photos of people who suddenly find themselves in the headlines.
The growth of social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook has made it much easier to get hold of this material. Since it is digital, it is easy to copy and replicate across the web. And it all gets indexed and cached by Google, making it easy to find.
The way the media feeds on the personal material on social media sites raises questions about what can be considered public or private in an Internet age.
Eliot Spitzer resigned from office
After the shootings at Virginia Tech last April, many students were upset by the way reporters trawled social networking sites for people affected by the tragedy. The students thought of these spaces as private and were critical of the practice of digital door-stepping by reporters.
University of California-Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd argues social networking sites offer a space for young people to express themselves and make sense of their place in the world.
A profile page is a way of saying, "this is me", which could explain why some MySpace pages feel like a teen's bedroom.
In Ms Dupre's case, her virtual bedroom is part of a global network of information. It was only private as long as she was a nonentity.
Her privacy through obscurity was shattered by the Spitzer affair when she became the focus of media attention.
When people post material on MySpace, Facebook or Bebo, they may not intend for it to be consumed beyond a specific group of friends or family. There is no reason to protect the privacy of the content.
However, anyone can see the information, if they are looking for it.
The emergence of these new semi-private spaces online is causing journalists to rethink the ethics of tapping social networking sites for personal information. In Britain, the newspaper watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission, is considering whether new guidelines are needed.
The BBC itself is launching new guidelines on the use of material from social media sites in recognition of the blurring of the boundaries between what is public and what is private.
BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann recently acknowledged that it was reasonable to assume that someone would only expect their photos on MySpace or Facebook to be seen by family and friends.
There is also the tricky question of copyright. Some of the photos published in media outlets ranging from the BBC to The New York Times were taken from Ms Dupre's MySpace profile and distributed by the Associated Press new agency.
The AP has defended its decision to take the personal snapshots from MySpace without asking for permission, on the grounds that they were newsworthy and relevant to the Spitzer story.
But Ms Dupre's attorney, Don D Buchwald, has hinted at possible legal action. He warned that "we will take all steps that we deem necessary or appropriate to protect Ms Dupre from any unwarranted exploitation of her name, picture, voice, or likeness for purposes of profit".
The question for the courts is whether publishing images in a public forum like MySpace renders them in the public domain for the purposes of news reporting and commentary.
The images have now spread like wildfire across the net. A quick scan on Google Image Search for Ashley Alexandra Dupre yields more than 5,000 results.
It illustrates how technology is changing faster than social, cultural and legal practices.
Millions of people have made all sorts of personal details available online via social networking sites, perhaps without realising the consequences.
As the creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, warned: "Imagine that everything you are typing is being read by the person you are applying to for your first job. Imagine that it's all going to be seen by your parents and your grandparents and your grandchildren as well."