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How I Do It: Internet privacy

December 14, 2009
Privacy: Forget it—they're watching your every move.

Source: Dave Pearson's Flickr page

Facebook’s introduction of a new privacy policy was apparently like throwing a pine cone at a hornet’s nest. I get it…only I don’t. Are people really under the impression that what the publish to the Internet is private, private? I password-protect a lot of stuff online, but I’m not under any illusion that I’m immune from mistakes, hacks or fine print.

I’m not trying to scare anyone out of social networking—maintaining an online presence is one of the easiest ways to build up a personal brand. But if you’re going to join the Internet community, you should know what you’re getting into and you should be armed with some general advice. Here’s mine:

Basic Internet Privacy

I assume that everything I put online, whether it’s password protected or not, can be made public (accidentally, via hack—whatever). I don’t sit around fearing this kind of thing, but, like plane crashes or lightning strikes, stuff can happen. That said, there’s some information that I just don’t publish anywhere (home address, etc.).

I also adhere to some steadfast rules:

  • Make your passwords confusing: I rotate out different passwords at arbitrary times for all my accounts and none of them have any pattern at all. My birthday, hobbies, etc. are all pretty easily findable if you’re really committed. I lean heavily in favor of paranoia when it comes to passwords—I even think something like NCC-1701 D would be too obvious, so I just type in a bunch of random stuff and remember it. Then I change it again.
  • Know other people’s privacy preferences before you publish anything about them: This is just a common courtesy thing. If I’m ever going to mention someone who doesn’t already have a strong, online presence (or if I’m going to mention something about them that I can’t find online) I consult that person first.
  • Understand what it is you’re doing: If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about the recent Facebook fallout, it’s that everyone complaining seems to think that their Facebook privacy is a right. Look: You’re publishing your personality to a corporate entity’s Web site. Like any sort of storage site (re: tangible or otherwise) you’re trusting a businesses security practices with your belongings. You wouldn’t keep your great-grandmother’s diamond ring in a rental storage locker, so don’t enter your social security number into Facebook.
  • Accept the fact that you’ll never have full security: If you’re that worried, keep yourself off the Internet.

Use SEO to “direct traffic”

One of the best ways to keep the information you don’t want to be found from being found is to highlight the information you do want people to find. If you have no online presence at all, your identity is at the mercy of whatever anyone else says about you. Google your name—what do you see? If you don’t like the results, consider setting up multiple points of contact—a Web site, a Facebook account, etc.—and make your name prominent on all those pages.

The more often you update your profiles, the better your search engine rank becomes. The upshot is that your Web site is more likely to appear before that 8-year-old news report of your DUI in college (which has probably never been updated). I own my name on a whole slew of social media sites—even ones I never use. Consequently, I own most of the results on the first several pages of a Google search for my name.

Set your social network privacy settings

Most social networks allow you to customize your privacy settings, so spend some time poking around to see what you’re able to do. One of the most useful things I’ve found is Facebook Friend Lists, which allows me to organize friends into lists (duh) and give certain levels of access to each one. This means I can make a list called, for instance, “people who are likely to say inappropriate things” and refuse them permission to write on my Wall. This, in effect, gives me several Facebook profiles all within the same account.

Get advice from the pros

Most people don’t bother reading the lengthy privacy agreements when they sign up for social networks; fortunately, sites like Mashable, TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb usually take the time to synthesize changes to privacy outlines. If you’re not a lawyer, or if you don’t have time to read 10 pages of 10-point fineprint, do some searches on these sites for “[X social network] privacy policy” and see what you can find. Usually they’ve pulled apart whatever it is that’s offending a lot of people.

Keep in mind, too, that you’ve got friends who are on all these networks, too (you do, don’t you?)—pick their brains. In all likelihood, you’re going to start your first foray into social media by keeping up with your in-person friends anyway, so it sort of makes sense to adopt the same settings they have.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2009 12:29 pm

    I think it’s difficult to understate the value of maintaining a Google Profile. It helps you direct traffic to the ‘right’ sites for your name and can provide a ton of help with personal branding. It’s like a direct line into the GOOG – you tell it exactly which sites represent you. Anyone who hasn’t grabbed their Google Profile yet, should definitely read Danny Sullivan’s writeup and build yours today.

  2. December 15, 2009 9:10 pm

    I hadn’t come across that write-up, nor had I really thought all that much about my Google Profile (it’s one of those things I “never use”), but that’s really useful, especially for people with common names. Nice catch.

  3. February 16, 2010 7:38 am

    I would add 3 more critical items to your list:
    (1) never give out your real name, SSN, etc. online. (yes I realize this means no buying stuff and no job searching) … but its the only way to have privacy. (the nature of the internet means that there is no privacy without anonymity.)
    (2) lock down your browser, firewall, OS and file system to prevent info getting out
    (3) make sure your ISP respects your privacy by giving you a dynamic IP (that actually changes frequently) and does not use Deep Packet Inspection technologies to snoop on your surfing

  4. February 16, 2010 9:31 am

    @independentblogger – I think a lot of what you mentioned really depends on one’s level of comfort online. I can’t imagine trying to function on the Internet without using my real name. A lot of the professional contacts I have were people I talked to online and then met in real life. I really don’t think I’d have much credibility with those people if I remained anonymous.

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