Social Media and Online Privacy: what you need to know

Social networking is a part of daily life, especially if you fit a certain age group or have a career in certain fields. For writers and bloggers, there’s great pressure to be on all the social networking sites to “build platforms” and connect with readers. Many of us joined Facebook and other online communities to connect with family members or friends who hang out there. Yet as online communities grow, so do concerns about online privacy.

Social networking and online privacy : what you need to know.

Legal Implications of Social Networking

Many people don’t realize that what they post on social networking sites is available publicly. That information is now being used in legal cases. In an article in LawNow magazine, Martin Kratz talks about how “admissions on a social networking site have been used against the posting parting in personal injury litigation… family law litigation… [and] employment litigation” (“Social Networking: Discretion Advised,” May/June 2009). For example, “an employee who filed a disability claim and posted his bodybuilding results on YouTube had some explaining to do.”

Kratz recommends that social networking users take care with their information online. His suggestions are to “understand and use the privacy settings on your social networking sites; use email for private communications and use the wall postings for public communications; respect the privacy of those about whom you write or post photos; respect your own privacy…; do not share too much detailed information…; [and] remember, once posted, the information is very persistent and hard to remove.”

Maintain Privacy Online

Be aware that information posted on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and other online networking places is public. Think twice before pressing “Publish” or “Share.” Avoid sharing personal information such as phone numbers and addresses online. Even your birthday is personal information that you may want to keep confidential; consider how often you are asked by your bank or the hospital for your birth date as confirmation of your identity.

(My mom actually put this into practice by entering a different date for her birthday when she signed up for her Facebook account. My husband asked me one morning, “Did you wish your mom happy birthday?” I said, “No, it’s not her birthday.” He said, “Yes, it is. Facebook says so.” I said, “I think I know better than Facebook when my mom’s birthday is!”)

Change passwords every thirty to sixty days to help protect your online privacy, and don’t use passwords that are easy to guess (such as variations of loved one’s names). Try to use a different password for each of your online accounts. If (like me) you have troubles remembering all these passwords, create a list—but keep it in a secure place, such as in your desk or purse, rather than on your computer.

While you’re updating your social media passwords, update your email password as well to protect your privacy there and prevent your email from getting hacked.

I’ve seen friends sharing a message on Facebook asking their friends to change settings to avoid sharing that person’s photos and status updates. However, asking a friend to change their settings will only affect what updates that friend sees from you. If you are concerned about what you post on Facebook, then you need to ensure that your privacy controls are set where you want them (and since Facebook constantly changes these settings, you should regularly check and update them).

Consider limiting your friends list, deleting photos after they’ve been up for a certain amount of time, or sharing photos via email with specific people rather than via Facebook with unknown people.

Once shared online, your personal profiles and photos become part of the public domain. That includes not only what one person posts, but also what other people post about them. For example, on Facebook, monitor what pictures have been “tagged” with your name, and consider removing tags from inappropriate pictures—or asking the person who posted it to remove the picture.

When I first began blogging, I did so anonymously. Since then, I’ve put my own name on my blog, but I use nicknames for my kids and refer to other family and friends by title (e.g., “my husband,” “my brother). This is a matter of personal preference among bloggers, of course, but I prefer to walk on the “safe” rather than sorry side.

I still do not post photos of my daughters online, especially after hearing one blogger’s story of finding photos of her son being printed on T-shirts by one online entrepreneur. If you do post pictures on your blog, watermark them with your name to make it harder for them to be stolen or used without your permission.

Use Social Networking Sites Wisely

Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Blogger, and other social networking sites are fun and useful. In 2009, Facebook complied with suggestions from Canada’s privacy commissioner to respect a user’s privacy. However, users should still exercise caution with their online information and use these sites wisely. Be aware of privacy settings and take steps to maintain online privacy. And always logout when you are done using a social networking site, even on your personal computer.

If you have children who use computers and the Internet regularly, talk with them about online privacy. A great resource is Parent Alert! How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online, which has tips for the whole family.

What do you think about information on Facebook and other social networking sites being using in legal cases or for hiring processes?  Do you monitor what you post online?

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