How to protect your data privacy on social networks

Studies have said public speaking makes as many as 3 out of 4 people anxious. But that was before Facebook.

The 650 million people on Facebook suggest that most of us are getting over—or want to get over—that fear of communicating (or at least sharing pictures) in public. In just a few years, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have given billions of people the chance to connect to an audience they would never had access to before.

But now that you’re becoming comfortable in public, you may begin to wonder: Am I revealing too much? In a world with the NSA, TMZ and Wikileaks, do I have any privacy? Is it possible to be a public person and still protect my information from being misused?

Friday January 28 is Data Privacy Day 2011, an international celebration of the dignity of the individual represented through personal information. Protecting your irreplaceable data is our mission and we take this mission very seriously. (Here is F-Secure’s Privacy Policy.)

The risks

The more visible, attractive or rich you are, the more you’re a target for the haters, the stalkers and online criminals of the 21st century. Heck, if you have a credit card, you’re a target for both the online criminals and unscrupulous marketers of the world.

Sharing personal information in an age where data can travel faster than lightning requires a 21st century view of data privacy. Some think it’s vain to worry about privacy. But don’t think about your ego, think about social engineering.

Wiktionary describes social engineering as “The practice of tricking a user into giving, or giving access to, sensitive information, thereby bypassing most or all protection.” Criminals have discovered that human error is the easiest vulnerability to exploit. If you’re not careful, your private data (or even public data) can be used to fool you into making mistakes that even your award-winning Internet Security can’t prevent.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not an excuse. Once your private data is stolen, you’ll have to deal with the consequences. The good news is that you can do a lot to make your data more secure

My nephew once told me, “Facebook is so easy that even old people can use it.” And by old people, he meant me.

I agree with my nephew. Most people who use social media don’t suffer significant negative consequences for doing so—or there wouldn’t be millions of new people trying it every day. Stories of people being fired or arrested for what they’ve done on Facebook are rare. But they get lots of attention because Facebook is the superstar everyone knows.

Only a small percentage of those on social media fall victim to the worst of identity theft, malware or scams. And that’s still too many people suffering needlessly—especially because most of these scourges are avoidable.

The lessons

If you learned to manage the benefits and risks of email, you can do the same for social media. Here a few things you can do to help keep your private data private.

1. Decide why you’re social networking.
For some, social networking is an extension of your private life. You mostly interact with people you know or would like to know in the real world. The main topics of conversation are personal. Even when you delve into entertainment or politics or sports, it’s about sharing opinions to have fun and connect. Intimacy is the goal so private things are often shared nonchalantly. For instance, you might reveal what you did on a day when you played hooky from school or work.

For others, social networking is like interacting at a conference. You’re seeking out people in your industry or whom you admire. Conversation is like a cocktail party—being interesting and on-topic matters. When you talk about entertainment or politics or sports, it’s a way to network and establish trust. You want people to feel like they know you, but getting too personal too fast raises red flags. For instance, you may reveal what you did on your vacation but only in a way that you wouldn’t mind your boss reading.

For a growing number of people, social network is a chance to build a little fame or fortune. You’re looking for an audience who trusts and enjoys you to the point you might even sell them things. You converse with fellow influencers and friends but you also broadcast for a targeted or general audience. When you talk about entertainment or politics or sports, you’re entertaining or engaging an audience while establishing expertise. You may share extremely private details or never talk about your personal life. Either way, you’re establishing a persona that’s relatable to the audience you’re trying to attract. For instance, you may reveal a joke a well-known person shared with you.

By the time you’re out of college for a few years, most people have tried out some variation of each of these approaches to social media. And your approach definitely affects your data security.

The rule is: the bigger the audience you seek, the more you have to think about the information you share.

All of us have to protect our ID, account and phone numbers, our address and our Mother’s maiden name. But if you’re an aspiring Disney star or class president, you have to think about which pictures you take—since you know they’ll all be posted eventually. And George Clooney probably shouldn’t use Foursquare to share his location unless he wants to spend his day shaking hands or filing restraining orders.

We all need to be cautious about sharing details that can be used to scam us. If you achieve, or accidentally achieve, fame, your privacy will become even more precious. So if you want to be internet famous, you need to be savvy about which information you share online—or you’ll have to hire people who are.

2. Secure your systems
Don’t use the default password for your voicemail or anything. Use strong, unique passwords for all your accounts. Don’t use work email addresses or passwords for social accounts. Put security software on your PC and your mobile device, if possible. Password protect your Wi-Fi networks. Turn on secure browsing on Facebook. Put a remote lock on your mobile phone. Always lock your PC and mobile devices when you aren’t using them. Keep your system and application software updated. (Our free Health Check makes that easy.) Turn off GPS on your phone and pictures if you don’t want strangers to know your location.

3. Choose services you trust
Any store, service or site that has your data, should have a privacy policy. A key feature of a good privacy policy is that your data will not be shared or sold. By 2011, most reputable online businesses have privacy policies that make that basic promise. But in addition to privacy also have to trust that any organization you trust with your data had security that won’t be compromised. Quality can have a price. If privacy is more important to you than cost, you can buy dedicated email services that won’t serve you ads. Regardless if they charge or not, you should only use reputable online services you trust. Before you enter any data into any website, think, “Do I trust this organization?” If there’s any doubt, ask others what they think.

4. On a social network, your information could be shared with everyone– no matter what your privacy settings are.
Twitter is simple. There are two privacy settings: everyone or “Protect my tweets”. But even if you go with the protected option, your approved followers can still retweet your information to everyone. Facebook’s privacy settings are much more complex. They’re so complex that it almost feels like you should get college credits for really using them. Going with “Friends Only” is a good start, then you have to decide if you want your page on Google (if you don’t want your Facebook page to show up on Google, go to Account > Privacy Settings > Apps and Websites: Edit your settings > Public Search: Edit Settings > Uncheck Enable public search)  and if you want to automatically share your information with other websites.

The safest rule is: get your settings right and still assume that what you post could go public so only share information you wouldn’t mind a future boss (or fan) seeing. NEVER share information that could be used to crack your passwords. Also keep in mind that the information you’re sharing that could be used by identity thieves and social engineers.

5. Be available or don’t
There is a difference between following and friending people. You can follow a lot of people but our brains can only handle around 130 friends. Rejecting or ignoring friend requests can be emotionally difficult, but your privacy is more important than others’ feelings. I say follow anyone on Twitter but on Facebook I’d recommend only befriending people you know or trust. And realize that the person is your friend, not their links. If anyone begins to spam you, let them know the problem. If they keep spamming, unfriend them. If anyone harasses you at all, block their communication. If you’re threatened, contact law enforcement.

You have the right to keep your private data secure while living your digital life to the fullest. All you have to do is respect your own data privacy and do your best to make sure that the people and businesses you interact with do the same.

Cheers,
Jason

CC image by Sudhamshu Hebbar

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