Some Tips on Online Privacy and Information Control

Sitting on the train most people probably feel anonymous. I personally like to pretend I am anonymous, but I know that the reality is probably different. At any time, without my knowledge, a photo of me could be taken, or even a photo with me in the background, and posted to the internet, where either Facebook, Google, Bing or some other service could realize the person in the photo is me and tag it if there is an existing photo associated with my name on one or more services. I could be completely unaware that such a photo existed until one day someone mentions it, it shows up in a search or I get turned down for a job because of something I might have been doing. The reality is that if you have any online presence at all, whether it be on Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn or any one of the other social media sites and you do not have complete awareness and control of your privacy settings on all of those sites you do not know exactly where you will pop up. If you do have no web-presence or are sure that you have complete control congratulations; you are one of the rare people who does not have to think about these things any further.

For the rest of us, a combination of privacy and information control is likely necessary to keep our online presence under control. As it is a virtual impossibility these days to be socially active and remain anonymous, there are a few steps that I have taken to help control my online image:

  1. Create accounts on popular services even if it is only to ensure that you have a controllable presence on that service. I have always created accounts on new and popular services when they first got popular as place-holders in case I needed to use them later or wanted to have a clean presence on the site. Only giving such information as your name and an email address (not necessarily your primary one) as well as posting a clean profile photo can be a way to ensure that people don’t associate you with someone with the same name and allow you to smoothly move into that service later if you so desire. This can also include creating all of the accounts with the same nickname or handle so you don’t have to think of a different username for every site you have to join eventually.
  2. Purchase your own .com domain. If only to redirect people to a favored profile, like on Facebook or LinkedIn, it is not a bad idea to purchase as a way to control what people will see if they look you up on a search engine or get curious about you. It is usually about $10 a year, but if you already have a web presence it could be worth the additional control.
  3. Set up a Google Alert for your name. If you have a Google account you can set up a Google Alert for your name that will periodically send you indexed pages that mention you on Google. This might seem paranoid, but it might be nice to know that is being said out there for you (unless you have an extremely common name, in which case the alerts will probably just drive you crazy.)
  4. Regularly check your privacy setting on social networking sites. Facebook, LinkedIn and others tend to change their privacy rules, settings and services on a regular basis without really informing their user base. Hit those sites every few months to see if anything has changed and if you agree with the privacy policies they have posted. Also be sure to check your privacy settings at sites like Facebook tend to change those frequently and can actually have a fairly large impact on your public profile. You might also want to turn off people ability to tag you in photos on Facebook without your approval on Facebook (I have a lot of photos of parties or events in which people in the background might get in a bit of trouble if they were tagged; you know who you are!)
  5. Post an actual profile photo on Facebook. Many people have babies, dogs, cats, feet, strawberry jam, etc up on their Facebook profile but this can make it hard to clearly associate information you want to be associated with you to be found, especially if you have a relatively common name. If you really wanted to be anonymous you would have no public profile on Facebook in the first place, right?
  6. If you don’t want people to know it, don’t put it on Facebook or Tweet it. It sounds basic, but a lot of people have posted comments or statements to Facebook or Twitter only to have them passed along and become common knowledge. If the idea of the world knowing what you post is scary or if it could cause you trouble, think twice before posting it.

There are a lot of other things you can do, but some basic measures like the ones I have mentioned can help you control information about yourself can make your life a lot easier. As the days of anonymity are probably over, it is a good idea to take control instead and shape your image in a way that better represents who you want people to think you are!

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