With all the talk lately about Facebook and the problems inherent in its privacy settings, I just wanted to put out a little safety warning in regards to the Internet.
Maybe Facebook could make their settings clearer and easier to use. But I think there isn’t too much Facebook can do about things, because I think the problem is that the people using Facebook are not educated about how their information is stored, used, etc. Before anybody is allowed to use Facebook (or Twitter, MySpace, etc. I don’t want to just pick on Facebook), someone should sit them down and say:
Facebook is still the Internet. Anything you say can be used against you. If you want something to remain private, then don’t post it on the Internet. Assume everything you write, any picture you upload, will be seen by the worst possible people (your boss, your mom, your parole officer, etc).
It’s really quite simple: if you want privacy, don’t go to the biggest public space in the known universe and share it. What would the guy you went on one date with do when faced with all of your Tweets from right after your last breakup? What about when your boss sees why you REALLY didn’t come in to work on Monday? Would your mother wash your mouth out with soap?
This is something that bloggers and other personal info sharers have known for some time. The problem is, the big social networking sites (like Facebook) make sharing things so easy, that people are doing it without considering what they are sharing, and with whom. I would wager that most of the people using Facebook have no idea how it can come back to haunt them.
Even if your information is relatively protected (i.e. you have your privacy settings set correctly), it is still being stored on a server somewhere, out of your control. Web crawlers can find information and replicate it to another site with no privacy controls. Someone could hack the server, or an employee could make an unauthorized copy. Or, a friend of yours could innocently re-post a picture or piece of information, without being malicious. Even just a little personal data could be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Okay, but you’ve heard all of this before, and probably ignored it. So I’m going to give you some concrete examples. As a person who puts large amounts of personal information out on the web, these are the issues that keep me awake at night.
The obvious examples are people looking for a job, or for a date. Do you think that interviewers or blind dates aren’t going to Google you? You would be amazed at the amount of information you can find about a person just by searching for them. For example, when I was in college there was a quote from me in the school paper. I was pretty frustrated at the time, but the article makes me sound like a racist. For the longest time, that was in the top 5 things that came up about me when you searched for my name, although now it has thankfully been pushed to about page 3 (mentioned at the risk of bumping that page up higher in the rankings). So any potential employer could Google me, say, “Whoa, racist!” and give me a pass without knowing anything else about me. And that article will be on the Internet in some form or another for the rest of my life.
You see why this is a problem? I certainly didn’t consider that when I gave the quote in the first place. Let me give another example. I was going to start with a new doctor who I had never seen before. For no reason at all, Sara and I googled him the night before my appointment and found his Facebook page. It turns out, the guy was right out of school (younger than me actually), and his page was full of pictures of him drinking. According to his page, he was known as the “party cougar”…I’m not sure what that means, but it was pretty clear that he did a lot of partying. Needless to say, I didn’t go into the appointment feeling very confident in his abilities. “But wait!” you say, “Isn’t that his fault for not having his privacy settings correct?” Well, it depends on how you look at it. On Facebook, at least by default, people in your same “network” can see at least some of your page. “Chicago” is a pretty big network.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. It gets much worse.
Little bits and information leak out over time, no matter how careful you are. As they used to say when I worked on classified materials, even unclassified information can become classified when it is linked together. And, because the Internet is forever, these leaks don’t disappear. They hang around. Little bits of trivia that seemed so stupid and unimportant are suddenly linked with other bits of information and start to give a picture. So let me give you some much scarier examples.
Lets say there is a person on the internet who is known only by their internet name, and someone wanted to find out where that person lived. If this person is active online, even if they think they are being careful, someone could probably do it. This person might have idle talk about things he passes on the way to work, or construction across the street, or the local independent music store he frequents. These comments might span years, but, taken altogether, one might be able to narrow his location down to a neighborhood. The person might use their first name here and there, and then have a family member known as Uncle Lastname. Given the person’s full name, or at least an educated guess, you could find out even more information about them, especially in public records such as house sales or building permits, which you could match with the neighborhood. Finally, the person might have a picture, lets say of their flowers on the back porch, in which you could see the view they see, including businesses or addresses, or at the least which floor they live on.
So that’s bad enough. But they could go further. Maybe you talk about going to see your favorite band in concert, the crazy things your cat does, or (god forbid) mention your mother’s maiden name. What happens if they go to your bank website, say they forgot their password, and the security question asks them about one of those things?
Okay, so let me outline my personal nightmare scenario for you (worse even than the above, in my opinion). In a couple of years, my daughter will be on the Internet. What’s to stop an online predator from convincing her he is a family friend? He’s got baby photos of her, he’s got all the information about her growing up; anecdotes of funny things she’s said, dates of vacations and surgeries, etc. How could he *not* be who he says? Shouldn’t she trust him?
::shudder:: I hate even thinking about it. And if I really wanted to be sure that it never happens, then the only thing I can do is close up shop. In fact, it’s probably already too late, because the second I typed my first post, it was picked up and cached somewhere, such as mirror sites, Google, or the Wayback Machine. And I can think of a lot more scenarios and ways to get information on people than I am mentioning, for fear of giving people ideas.
You can’t live in fear. And, in reality, there are actually very few online predators out there. So, even knowing all of this, I keep doing what I do. I’ve decided the benefits outweigh the risks. But please people, for the love of all that is holy, don’t go into it blind. Know what you are putting out there. Know how it can be used. Think about it before you put it out there. Don’t expect Facebook, or anybody else, to protect you. Protect yourself, or at the least, make informed decisions.
That is all.