Whether you realise it or not, you have a digital identity: footprints of where you’ve been online, and fingerprints of how you got there. Everything you have ever done online, from logging into an email account, shopping for gifts or, most obviously, your social networking, has, piece by piece, publicised information about you. And there are people out there very interested in turning those pieces into a picture.
For social networkers, the risks for having their privacy invaded are many. In the relaxed environment of sites such as Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, users often find themselves broadcasting information with little thought about the hidden audience that may be witnessing their activity. It’s this relaxed attitude, however, that sees many users depict themselves in ways that are easy to regret, especially when confronted by the feedback of their employers, families or the world at large.
Too much information
An example: In July last year, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers had his cover blown after his wife posted details of the family’s home and work locations, friends and holiday destinations, and connections with senior diplomats and well-known actors on Facebook, with privacy settings that made the content available to the site’s 200 million users. The blunder caused not only major embarrassment for the Sawers, but a huge security breach for MI6.
And online indiscretions are not the only potential menaces that would-be networkers face. A casual reference to a pet or loved one, for example, on a social networking site could ultimately lead to an identity thief successfully accessing the ‘forgotten password’ function of a Hotmail account. Likewise, by doing something as simple as mentioning on a social networking site that you are going away for the holidays, you may be unwittingly inviting thieves into your home. Tweeting your every move may allow nefarious characters to trace your steps, knowing where you are and aren’t, and to exploit that fact.
And it doesn’t end there. Friends and acquaintances can knowingly or unknowingly reveal details about you that you’d perhaps rather keep private, both through comments on their and your pages, and through exploratory functions such as tagged photo searches.
The golden rule it seems is that social networks are, fundamentally, public networks. Cheating spouses have been exposed, insurance companies have denied applications and evidence has been submitted in court based on social networkers’ failure to limit their sharing of information.
Teach a man to phish...
Lack of discretion is one danger when social networking. Getting hacked is another.
There are many ways a hacker can exploit your digital traces. One of the newest methods involves a scammer gaining access to your social network password, perhaps through a phishing scam. They go into your account and change your password so that you can’t access it. Then they send desperate-sounding messages to your contacts claiming to be you. The pitch goes that you’ve become stranded in some far-off country and you desperately need cash to get home. Your friends are then duped into depositing cash into an account to help you out, before you or anyone else realises that something is amiss.
Thankfully, outright identity theft like that described above is a relatively rare occurrence; the effects, however can be devastating. Not only can a hacker dupe your friends; if a hacker gets access to your bank account details it can be only a matter of moments before your accounts are stripped clean, or credit cards maxed out, with little recourse on your part.
Wiping the slate clean(ish)
So you’ve started taking care who you give your information to, and you’ve taken the step of deleting that sensitive information from your social networking pages. Now you’re in the clear, right?
Well, no. Much of the information posted on the Web is cached soon after it’s posted, and Web site operators, especially social network operators, back up their content fastidiously. What this means is that what you write in a post today may be available long after you’ve deleted it, for years, or perhaps indefinitely. For a graphic example of this phenomenon, experiment with The Way Back Machine found at tinyurl.com/f754 It just goes to show that that lapse in judgement may be gone, but it is certainly not forgotten.
The bottom line is, anytime you venture online, some kind of exposure is guaranteed. The convenience and immediacy of the Internet is a powerful lure, but it always comes at a price – loss of anonymity. Shopping online, social networking and even just logging on create a footprint in cyberspace – one that you could be held accountable for at any moment.
And while our expectations regarding privacy, not to mention our sensibilities, may be old-fashioned, it doesn’t change the fact that information, including information about you, represents a very real part of a new digital economy. Your likes and dislikes, browsing and purchases – that’s big business.
So what can the average surfer do to keep safe? Fortunately the most common privacy headaches are the easiest to cure. Here are 10 easy steps to keeping your personal information private while online.