What’s your biggest fear? For some it’s being stuck in an elevator. Others (like me) are terrified of spiders. Lately it seems, though, that many people are most afraid of losing control of their privacy on the Internet. Anyone with a Facebook account has experienced some level of privacy violation, whether it was several years ago when Facebook sent user data to third-party sites for marketing, or recently when Facebook added a “ticker” into the design of the website that alerted your friends of your activity in real time. Other social networks, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ can present your information just as publicly. The Library of Congress is even archiving every public tweet sent via Twitter. These issues may not concern you, but they probably should, as anyone can use your data from social networks to sell to marketing companies, and other companies are cross-analyzing social profiles to create an eerily comprehensive profile of habits, personality, and tendencies without even knowing you personally.
Protecting your privacy is easy and only requires a common-sense approach. Some organizations, like the EFF, offer advanced tips for those who are especially tech savvy to reduce privacy invasion. Our tips are perhaps more basic — but can help prevent a huge disaster if you don’t follow them.
Stop checking in.
Whether it’s Facebook or Foursquare, many social media users love checking in at every restaurant they eat, every concert they attend and every park they pass on the commute home. We’ve discussed the danger of using location based services before, especially when you check-in to “home.” Although you may not always disclose your location, a stalker can still use your data to get an idea of your habits and general schedule. Always check in to the dog park at 5:15? Anyone who follows you on Foursquare knows where to find you — and if you share that information on Twitter publicly, anyone who knows your Twitter account knows it, too. If you just can’t quit the habit of checking into places (perhaps you are Mayor all over town and get a sweet discount at every coffee shop as a perk), consider checking in when you leave. At least then you won’t be there when your stalker shows up.
Facebook is a great place to brag, especially about your new condo, new relationship, or new job. No matter how private your Facebook settings, inputting this information on Facebook logs it permanently into the system, and there is no promise from Facebook that the information will permanently remain private. (The recent beta test of the new Timeline for profiles unveiled this, as information I shared over five years ago became visible to the public again.) If you’re worried about people finding out too much about you, remove and/or don’t share anything personal, including your job (and employment history), your relationship status, your address, your phone number, or your birthday (or, at least, your birth year). The sum of that information can make it easier for someone to steal your identity — but without it, next to impossible. Your profile is also useless without marketing data like your location or age.
Remove connections to all apps except the ones you know you use and need to use.
Have you ever received a spammy message on Facebook or Twitter? That spam was the result of another user’s account being phished when they tried to add an app that was designed to steal access to their account. Sometimes, apps go bad, and an app that once seemed legitimate was compromised (either intentionally or otherwise) and retroactively compromised the accounts of its users. If you don’t know what apps you have connected to your social media accounts, take 10 minutes to look through them and remove any app you are unfamiliar with or don’t need anymore. This will help prevent your account from being compromised by a rogue application you previously connected.
Delete Facebook friends you have never met.
Having the most friends on Facebook is not indicative of your success or popularity. In fact, many spammers have easily maxed out their friend allotment on Facebook (which is 5,000) — but they are definitely not the most popular people on Facebook. Accepting friend requests from people you don’t know means that any information or updates you limit to friends is visible to complete strangers, who can then share this information with other complete strangers — and you don’t know what they may do with your data. It also means you may be bombarded with spam in the form of messages, IMs, and wall posts, which can make using Facebook potentially dangerous should you click on any of the included links.
Delete Twitter followers you don’t trust.
Twitter users are more prone to follow people they have never met in real life, such as celebrities and bloggers. However, Twitter is also riddled with spam and scams. Following back scammy accounts means your DM inbox will quickly be filled with spam messages which could compromise your account. It also means you may miss legitimate, important DMs from other followers.
Check and secure your Facebook privacy settings.
Do you know who can see the information you share on Facebook? While you generally shouldn’t post anything on the Internet that you wouldn’t want everyone to see (ever), you can change your privacy settings to at least add a preventive layer to who can easily see what you share on Facebook. These settings are accessible by clicking on the dropdown arrow in the blue bar and clicking on Privacy Settings. Choose a default privacy for mobile apps, and then choose the a privacy level for each category. For some options, the maximum level of privacy will limit visibility to just your friends; for others, you can choose either yourself or a list of friends (more on utilizing this feature below). Generally speaking, the less people who can see the information you share on Facebook, the better.
Create friend lists on Facebook.
As mentioned, friend lists on Facebook can be used to limit who sees information shared on Facebook. Friend lists are not new, but not many people know about the feature. By creating lists, you can choose to limit the visibility of certain aspects of your profile to specific lists in the privacy settings. You can also choose to share each status updates with specific lists. Keep in mind, though, that anyone can copy and paste your status update and share it with someone who you did not intend to see the post.
Avoid signing up for every new social network to which other tech blogs offer beta access.
Everyone loves being the first to try something new, but sometimes being a guinea pig can risk your privacy and security. There are dozens of new social networks that spring up every day, and many of them ask for email addresses, a password, and/or permission to connect to one of your other social networks. Be aware that the more you share this information, the more you put yourself at risk for your data to be compromised. If you’re really keen on winning the social 2.0 butterfly award, consider creating a unique email address and using a very different password for each new “network” you join.
Make your Twitter profile private.
The Library of Congress might be archiving every public tweet, but if your tweets are protected, your retweets and replies will not be included. Twitter users who share meaningful or personal information via Twitter may want to choose this option to increase their privacy, though as with Facebook, any user can copy or paste these updates and share them with all other Twitter users. Additionally, if a follower of a protected account has a public Twitter account and retweets a protected tweet, that content becomes public. Twitter users who choose this option should be very cautious of who they allow to follow them to prevent the loss of privacy that this option protects.
Delete your profiles from social networks.
If the privacy options baked into social networks are not enough to calm your concerns about the protection of your privacy while using Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms, consider deleting your account. The information you have already shared will be (likely) stored forever in the networks’ respective databases and continue to be sold to marketers (though the networks may never fully admit it). If you’re worried about the future of your privacy, you can try to limit who sees your information in the future — or stop sharing that information entirely by deleting your social network profiles.
How do you protect your privacy online? Let us know your ideas in the comments.