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Are These Social Media Practices Endangering Your Privacy?

young_family_computer.jpgupdated August 2014

New developments or types of social media launch almost daily. Because such Internet-based applications or programs enable individuals and groups to connect easily and openly to share all types of information, you or your children may be putting private information at risk. Often you may not be aware just how much or what information you are sharing.

Perhaps, you are concerned about such developments in the popular universe of social networking and media or maybe you agree with Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who's been widely credited with the view that it's a new day in networking where people just don't care as much about privacy. Whatever your opinion, you (and your kids) should make an informed decision about how much of your personal information you want shared and how. That will take some digging and study on your part. Our goal in this report is to help you take a look at some of the most recent developments.

Data sharing changes make monitoring your privacy settings mandatory

Many new social media sites, applications or features appear weekly. As many privacy experts point out, the business model of many social media companies is to use "opt out" rather than "opt in" choices for whether or not a user participates in various features or functions. Most companies also put the best spin on this practice emphasizing things like more connectivity to friends or greater ease of use and rarely mentioning the potential downside of sharing more information about yourself, your activities and your opinions to wide or public audiences. This typical industry practice means that you must routinely monitor your privacy settings for the social media you use. Set your privacy settings carefully when you join a new site or service or enable a new application; check again when new features appear.

You can opt out of some or all of this sharing by selecting appropriate privacy settings within Facebook. Since Facebook and other social media sites change their privacy setting frequently, we recommend that you review your overall privacy settings regularly.

Who care's what's public if you're having fun—photo and video sharing

All the world's a stage these days! Cellphone cameras are everywhere and videocams nearly everywhere. Snap a photo or run a little video and post it to your blog or social network page or upload it to YouTube. You might get a viral hit. Where's the harm? With a little precaution and judicial personal censorship, probably none. But it's important to remember a few things about images on the Internet and to help our young adults remember them, too.

  • First, once an image is posted to the Internet it's public forever. Even if you take it down from sites you control, others may have copied it and it may be archived. Photos that seem innocuous to you and your friends may have unforeseen consequences. In one case, a posted photo of a young teacher on holiday in the islands enjoying an adult beverage with friends (nothing wild at all) landed that same teacher in trouble with the school board. That may not be fair, you think, but it's fact.
  • Second, the background of a photo or video may reveal more than you want known. Does it give away your home or school location? Together with your name and face that could give a thief or predator enough information to identify you or your teen.

Connect Safely has a good tip sheet to help parents talk with their kids about photo and video sharing.

family_computer.jpg

Hey, look where I am and what I'm doing—geolocation or social mapping applications

Geolocation applications are the latest craze for many "connected" people. Geolocation identifies the real-world, real-time location of a computer or mobile device connected to the Internet or of a website visitor. Foursquare, Gowalla, and Yelp are some of the most popular geolocation programs. But other services such as Twitter or Google have some "geo-tagging" capability that may be enabled. And of course, you can post your status on social networking sites. Most enable you to share just where you are and/or what you are doing. The privacy question to consider is: how public is this information? Is the information so public that, for example, potential thieves could identify you and know your home was unoccupied? Can you set adequate privacy controls?

Again, our recommendation is that you thoroughly examine the privacy policies of such applications and services before enabling them and reject them or set them to privacy levels you are comfortable with.

Texting to Sexting

If you are a parent and your tween or teen has a cell phone, you know that kids live to text. Most parents are also concerned with the growing phenomenon of sexting. This is sending of sexual content, usually revealing photos, from mobile phone to mobile phone. Not only does this practice expose kids and place them at risk of predators, it may also open them up to charges related to child pornography. Privacy experts experienced in working with kids recommend that parents open an ongoing, calm, non-confrontational dialogue with their children about how they use texting and social networking and the potential dangers. Support their critical thinking about the best and safest ways to use social media both for themselves and their friends or peers. For some helpful resources, see ConnectSafely.org and OnGuardOnline.gov.

GetReal Summary: Monitor your privacy settings. But adopt this precautious stance—if I post it, it's public and out of my control.

Social networking and other social media can certainly make it easier to connect with a wide range of friends and acquaintances. Given the varied privacy protocols and approaches and the rapidly expanding number of sites, services and applications, personal vigilance is the watchword. Limit personal information you post, monitor privacy settings on all sites, and help your kids do the same. Our consumer education team enjoys using social media, but we find it really helps to adopt the attitude that if we post it, it's public and act accordingly. You and your family might consider the same approach.

For More Information

ConnectSafely.org offers news, safely tips and advice for parents and youth using social networking, video-sharing, geolocation-sharing and more.

OnGuardOnline.gov from a consortium of government agencies also offers helpful news and tips.

Electronic Frontier Foundation bloggers comment regularly on security issues and there are tipsheets.

Electronic Privacy Information Center has a collection of news links and other information


Originally published July 2010. Reviewed and updated August 2014.

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