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Privacy, Please: How to Keep Your Online Identity Safe

How to protect your privacy and online identity including your Facebook settingsBy Deborah Goldstein
It’s almost comical that online privacy is such a hot topic in this era of reality TV and Facebook, where people put even the most banal, “TMI” details of their lives on display. But it is a concern, and for good reason. Find out which steps you should take to protect your identity—and even avoid embarrassment, whether your own or that of your children.

Case in point: Cellphone maker HTC is currently investigating a claim that its Android devices are susceptible to privacy leaks, that “any app that is given basic Internet access permission can also get access to everything from a user’s GPS location to his or her phone calls, system logs and other information.” Unnerving.

Facebook has had its share of privacy issues, as well, including one major “oops” moment that David Kirkpatrick recounts in his book, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.

“In late 2009 Facebook renovated its privacy controls and made a major effort to explain to users how to put friends into groups and assign various levels of disclosure to information. However, in the course of requiring users to adjust their settings, the company set the default setting on new controls to ‘everyone.’ Many users who were not paying attention found their information more exposed rather than less, despite this supposed ‘improvement’ in privacy.”

What if that happened again? Is it their fault—or yours, for trusting a free Internet service to safeguard your most private information?

Kirkpatrick offers this solution: “It makes sense to be cautious about how much of your data you expose on Facebook. I myself abide by the simple ‘front page’ rule. I’m relatively comfortable exposing a large portion of my whole self to scrutiny, so I put up extensive and accurate information on my profile and actively participate in dialogue. But I try never to include anything I would be devastated to find published on the front page of my local newspaper.”

Jeff Jarvis, author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, takes a more philosophical approach before posting online: “…when I go public, I try to ask why. What’s the value? Will I just be creating more chatter and clutter? Will I add to knowledge? What’s the benefit?”

You might also incorporate a few of these ideas:
Update your privacy settings on Facebook since its major update last month. Go to the upper right corner and click “Privacy Settings” under “Home.” Use their Help section if you get stymied (or ask a friend on Facebook—where many have been advising each other through this newest batch of changes).

Change online passwords often, and don’t use the same one for everything. (If a hacker discovers your password on a less secure site, he could use it for your online banking site.)

Recognize that downloading applications (all with their own privacy policies), could compromise your privacy—especially location-based apps.

Apply Kirkpatricks’ “front page” rule to emails—especially at work. Technically, any email you send could be forwarded to someone you wouldn’t want reading it. Or worse, you might accidentally send that complaint about your boss TO your boss.

Be judicious with which coworkers you “friend” on Facebook. As Kirkpatrick shares in his book, “A young U.S. employee of Anglo-Irish Bank asked his boss for Friday off to attend to an unexpected family matter. Then someone posted a photo on Facebook of him at a party that same evening holding a wand and wearing a tutu. Everyone in the office—including his boss—discovered the lie.”

Don’t assume your friends, family, or coworkers want their interactions with you made public. Be mindful when tagging others in images on Facebook, or posting on their wall, or in status updates of your own.

Monitor your child’s online activity, and consider instituting a rule that having access to a computer means sharing access to your child’s Facebook profile. (This also means, don’t embarrass your children by posting about them online!)

Make sure your teen knows the consequences of bad behavior online, including Facebook posts, email, and texts or “sexts.” From The Facebook Effect: “At Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, Massachusetts, a student gathered up pictures that showed popular kids drinking and possibly using marijuana, then sent them en masse to the school principal and others in the community. At another high school, the principal went onto Facebook and suspended all the athletes he saw in photos of a party who were holding bottles of beer.”

Tell Us: What steps do you take to ensure your privacy online? And how stringent are you with your child’s online activity?


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