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Protecting Privacy on Social Networking Sites

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 23 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Privacy Social Networking Facebook

Social networking sites are powerful communication tools that enhance the lives of millions, but they are also a privacy risk if you don’t take care with how lightly you tread across the web.

No Expectation of Privacy

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that the rise in popularity of social networking sites has shown that people no longer have an expectation of privacy and have become comfortable with sharing greater amount of private information with a wider array of people.

Is that true that we are now happy to reveal our private thoughts and details to all and sundry? One could argue that Zuckerberg was merely attempting to lessen the fallout from accusations that Facebook has acted irresponsibly with regards to the privacy settings of its users. If people are in fact revealing more of their private lives on the internet then it is more likely due to an ongoing naivety about where that private information goes once it feeds into the World Wide Web and how it is exploited.

Naivety about the Web’s Respect for Privacy

One of the greatest mistakes users continue to make when joining social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace is in underestimating the repercussions of sharing private information online.

By doing so they unwittingly expose themselves to alarming array of risks and threats from the web’s lurking populace, such as misuse of private information, identity theft, cyber-stalking, and even regret – many people add content to the web that they later wish they hadn’t and that they are unable to fully remove.

The internet is not a secure place and it will never be a totally safe home for private information. If you don’t want to put yourself at any risk and retain total privacy then it is probably best to not join up at all.

Such extreme measures are unnecessary, however - when simply taking the time to understand and utilise privacy control settings and acting with due care and caution with regards to what information you give up - will go a long way towards lessening threats against your privacy.

Revealing More Than You Should?

As social media, these websites naturally require users to reveal personal information but limits should still be imposed on what is disclosed even on an account that is supposedly ‘private’.

When uploading personal information, ask yourself whether a stranger would be able to identify you with the data you have disclosed. Listing favourite foods or hobbies on your profile is personal information but will not give away your identity. A phone number, birth date, full name or pictures of your home or workplace, however, can all be used to identify you and should be avoided. Your username should also not include any revealing personal information - ‘Bristol_Brenda’ would be an unwise choice, for example.

It is important to make sure friends and family don’t unveil your privacy on your behalf by asking them not to post or tag photos of you or include information about you in their profiles without first asking permission.

Many web-savvy and privacy conscious users are protective over their private email address and jealously guard who has access to it. For registering with public sites they use a dummy email account that doesn’t use their real name. This way they can control who has direct contact with them. What’s more it is also useful as a spam filter. If the account is compromised in any way they can simply abandon that email account and start afresh.

Nothing is Deleted

Nothing is ever really deleted from the web. Before posting anything it is therefore important to first think about whether it is something that you may later come to regret. For instance, embarrassing photos may seem funny at a particular time and in a particular context but once they are in the system there’s always the risk they can return to haunt you, whether you deleted them or not.

As a handy rule if you wouldn’t say it or show it to your mum or your boss then it’s best not to put it on the web in the first place.

Utilise Privacy Controls

Besides taking care about what information they post on social networking sites, users should pay close attention to the security setting to ascertain whether the information they add will be public or private. If you have a public profile it can be viewed by anyone searching the website and may even appear in non-site search engine results.

You should also exercise a degree of caution on who you allow into your network and regularly review those you have already allowed in. Would you invite this ‘friend’ into your house?

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