Your name is not on your Twitter account. Your Facebook profile is set to private. And you would never, ever give out your social security number online. You’re safely anonymous online, right? Not so much.
I read an article today in the New York Times about increasing concerns over online privacy – how people compromise it, whether it exists at all. For the safety-savvy woman, the Internet presents a host of challenges that cannot afford to be breezed over.
The article contended that researchers were able to piece together individuals’ identities – sometimes down to their social security numbers – based on information gathered from their often-anonymous social profiles and those of their cyberfriends. To be more specific, by examining statistical correlations, scientists were able to identify 30 percent of Twitter and Flickr users and accurately predict the social security numbers of an estimated 8.5 percent of people born in the U.S. between 1989 and 2003.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Now let’s put this in perspective. Am I advocating that you remove all trace of yourself from the Internet to protect your privacy and your safety? No. You couldn’t do that if you wanted to. What I am saying is that as technology evolves, we inevitably become more vulnerable. Rather than blame technology or blame the scientists or blame our loud-mouth friends, we need to step up our own game and take what steps we can to stay safe online.
Someone who scours your profile and your friends’ profiles may be able to piece together information about your life, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we should just lay it all out there. What we’re trying to do here is be a “bad victim” or a “hard target” online. If a criminal is going to stalk someone or steal someone’s identity, chances are, they’re going after the easy prey. Most criminals aren’t trying to make life hard for themselves! So if you are discriminating about what you post, and you pay attention to where you show up on other people’s profiles, you will make the would-be cyberattacker’s life just that much harder. Chances are, when they realize they can’t find much information on you, they’ll move on to an easier victim.
I’m talking about things like posting online where you work, what time you leave at night, where you live, whether you’re alone. What kinds of pictures of you can people find online? When you’re considering posting a tidbit of information or a photo to your Facebook page or your Twitter account, stop and ask yourself three questions:
1. Would I want my mom to see this?
2. Would I want my boss to see this?
3. Would I want a serial killer to see this?
Because, like it or not, all of those people are looking. When it comes to protecting your privacy online, follow one simple rule: Avoid TMI (too much information).
I’m not saying you shouldn’t “play” online. But I am saying that you can’t hide behind anonymity when you do. You should always act like you’re being watched because, well, you are. As Cornell computer science professor Jon Kleinberg told the New York Times,
“When you’re doing stuff online, you should behave as if you’re doing it in public — because increasingly, it is.”