When you think about it, attempting to provide security in a medium (social media) where the objective is to share (at least to some degree) personal aspects of your life, doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that Mark Zukerberg of Facebook famously declared that privacy is dead.

But is it? Should it be that way? Even with Facebook moving the goal posts every few weeks, and changing the way you control access to your data, and sometimes defaulting to very poor choices, you still have some opportunities to control what you share outside your circle of friends (real friends, I mean, not just Facebook “friends”).

What’s the probem?

Hand reaching out of laptopWe may all have different ideas of what we are willing to share with others – depending, at least partly, on how well we know them. That’s the reason that “one size fits all” privacy doesn’t work. Whether you believe in sharing everything, or sharing very little, chances are the next person has a different view about what information they want to share.

Understandably, businesses want to share lots of information about the business, but individuals often want to restrict some of their more personal information. However, many individuals use personal accounts for business information, and the lines between business and personal get blurry.

An eye-opening example

Recently a reporter published an article called Confessions of an Online Stalker. He did it to research just how much personal information is available for free on the internet. He chose a person who is very “plugged in” – having several online businesses, lots of social media presence, etc. What he was able to learn about his “target” was surprising, even to the target (the reporter eventually met him and revealed the information to him).

For example, he knew where he lived as a child, and how much that home was worth. He knew where he lived currently, that he lived with his fiance, and his educational and professional history. The reporter knew what coffee shop the target frequented, and what he drank. He was able to find his target’s travel schedule for the indefinite future. He saw his target on YouTube videos, and heard him speak.

The reporter got a bit of his own medicine when he traveled to Singapore, and posted his jogging route online, and had a reader contact him to jog with him. They became friends.

How can you regulate your own privacy?

Possibly as a reaction to Facebook’s intentional openness, or perhaps it is just good timing, but there have been a number of articles recently on protecting your privacy online. One of the best is 9 Ways to Control Your Privacy on Social Media Sites. Others will come up with a search – especially a blog search.

Post discreetly

If you post your information on a web page, a forum, a blog, or a site like Twitter (which has no set of privacy controls – your only hope at a private message is the Direct Message or DM – but see 5 Reasons Twitter Direct Messages Are Useless), whatever you post is available to the public. Because of real-time search by Google and the other search engines, that means it is available almost instantly – there are no “do-overs”.

The result for these public postings is that everything you post is public, and because of caching by the search engines, it is available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, forever! The best solution to this is to very, very cautious about what you post. Some have said, don’t post anything you would be embarrassed to have your mother read. Whatever yardstick you choose to apply, be careful out there!

A special word is warranted about forums. Many (most?) forums require you to create a login and password to be able to post to the forum. However, most do not require a login and password to read the posts. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security that because you have to log in to be able to post, that it is a private forum – it is a public forum and anyone – repeat ANYONE – can read what you have said.

The article called 9 Ways to Control Your Privacy addresses this topic as Number 3: Have a Clear Understanding of What Sensitive Information is — and Don’t Share it. Good advice!

Control your privacy settings

For sites, like Facebook, that do allow you to control who has access to particular content, go through the controls carefully and set them to your liking. When Facebook changes the privacy settings and controls, go back and check them, to be sure you are still happy with the settings.

Create groups or lists or whatever Facebook wants to call them this week. Set different privacy controls for each group/list, so you can add new “friends” to appropriate groups, and they will only be able to see what you decide to show them.

Take a look at Reclaim Privacy to see what your privacy settings are showing and consider resetting them appropriately.

Update (2017):  I was recently contacted by a representative of comparitech.com, who alerted me that Reclaim Privacy has been discontinued. He pointed me toward their article showing how to take these steps for yourself. While I haven’t checked out the details, you can read through it for yourself here.

Be careful who your friends are

Don’t accept friend requests from strangers. If you are a business, set up a business page, and point the strangers to it, rather than accepting them as “friends” on your personal page. According to the 9 Ways to Control Your Privacy article, studies indicate that 40% of new Facebook profiles are fakes.

Don’t automatically follow back on Twitter or other microblogging platforms. See if the user seems valid, and follow them only if they are valid and worthwhile for your purposes. Would you be friends with them in real life?

There are other issues as well, many discussed in the articles we’ve linked to above. Some are more security issues than privacy concerns (like strong passwords, fraud and phishing issues, etc.), although failing to implement these properly can lead to very serious privacy issues.

Another related issue is mentioned by Heather Turner in her article, Important Information for Facebook Fan Page Business Owners. If you have a business page, and an employee is taking care of it for you, be sure you are listed as an admin for the page! If not, the employee may leave (no matter the reason) and you may no longer have any ability to control the page!

The bottom line

Take control of your privacy! Share what you want shared, but don’t share anything publicly that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the local newspaper. Just as you might share very personal information with your closest friends, set up groups with different privacy levels so you can share what you want with each group.