Sunday, April 1, 2012

Social Network Safety

The amount of personal information easily available on the internet is staggering.  It’s kind of funny, in an odd way though.  Doctors, lawyers, schools and employers get attacked all the time for “leaking” personal information, but an average person will willingly divulge much more potentially damaging personal information on any number of social networking sites.  Just look through sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest.  You will see people posting about incredibly sensitive and personal information – and sometimes it’s even about themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, social networking is not always a bad thing.  There just needs to be some thought and even restraint before posting information.  Once data is out there on the internet, it’s out there.  There is no magic eraser that will get rid of the post.  No do-over button that gives you a second chance.  Sure, some sites allow you to fiddle with your posted data, but some, maybe even most, will hold onto data even after you click the delete button.  A good rule to follow before you post is what is referred to as the “grandmother’s rule”.  It’s pretty simple.  If you would not go up to your grandmother and tell her what you are about to post, it’s probably something you shouldn’t post in the first place.  Granted, this might not always work for everyone, especially those with grandmothers who are a little on the wild side.  If that’s the case for you, maybe instead of talking to grandmother, think if it is something you would stand in front of a group of strangers and announce.

Here are a few tips for safer social networking:
  • Make sure personal information like phone numbers, addresses, full birth dates and email addresses are hidden.  Better yet, don’t enter this type of information in the first place.
  • A lot of sites ask for one or more secret questions to help validate your identity if you forget your password or lock your account.  These are the questions like “first pet’s name” or “city of birth”.  Make sure when setting up secret questions for ANY account that the answers aren’t readily available on social network sites.
  • If the site’s privacy controls allow, configure your account so that it doesn’t permit others to repost your posts.  For example, on Facebook if you post something and a friend comments on the post, your original post may become available to all of the friend’s friends.  In some cases this may be ok, but in general it is probably not a good thing.
  • Don’t post plans for vacations or reasons you would be away from home prior to the fact.  Criminals use social networking sites all the time.  Don’t make it easy for anyone else to know when your house or apartment will be vacant. Wait until you get back to talk about your trip.  The same holds true for sites that allow you to “check in” or post your current location.  There was a web site that was set up to harvest and publish this type of data in case it was too hard for bad guys to figure out on their own.  It's gone, but there are probably others just like it out there now.
  • Photos, especially those taken with many cell phones, will have location information as part of the photo metadata.  This is called geotagging.  There are various tools that anyone can use to pull out the location where the picture was taken.  So if you post really cool pictures of you on a secret island get away, it might not be much of a secret any more.  Same thing if you are on a secret business trip and you post pictures.
  • Be wary of any links for free items (click here for dinner for free at Applebee’s for a year) or special offers (click here to register for a free iPad) or secret pictures (click here to see famous person’s autopsy or sex pictures).  These are just scams.  In the least case they are annoying and by clicking the link you could be generating revenue for the scammer.  In the worst case, your account could become compromised or you could unknowingly download malicious code onto your computer or device.  There have been several Facebook scams where as a result of clicking a bad link a message is blasted out to all of your friends that you “just visited and joined” some super awesome adult site and the friend can now join with you for free.
There has been a lot of news lately about employers requiring potential employees to provide access to social networking accounts.  The argument is that an employer should know the character of perspective employees and there is no better way to do this than by reviewing their posts and personal information.  This is a huge can of worms right now and I am not going to take a side here.  However, it goes to show that words and pictures posted, even years ago, can lead to unexpected consequences down the road.  So take a minute and think how information on your social network sites could affect not only you, but maybe others as well.