Thursday, April 7, 2011

Privacy in social media

There's an old story of two hikers who come across a hungry-looking bear in their path. The first hiker starts running for his life. The second hiker stops, sits down on a rock, takes off his heavy hiking boots off, reaches into his backpack and pulls out a pair of running shoes.

The first hiker yells back at him, "What the heck are you doing? You know you can't outrun a bear!" To which the second hiker matter-of-factly responds, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."
More on that story in a moment.

Whether it's Twitter geolocated tweets, photos that include GPS metadata, or your Facebook profile, you have the option of sharing with the world where you are.  If you share pictures of your kids that include GPS coordinates and most of them are clearly taken at home, you've just advertised where that child lives.  ...and as you probably already know, there are bad, crazy people out there who are looking for you and your kids for any number of reasons.

Note to self, recheck pictures on Facebook to see if they contain GPS coordinates.

What you may not realize is that you are one entry in a phone book.  I'm not saying it's okay to share with the world that you're about to be a mother or father and all baby gifts can reach you at P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, Australia, but adding to your Twitter profile that you live in Sydney is probably fine because Sydney is, after all, a pretty big place.  So is New York, San Francisco, San Jose, etc.  If you had a lot of enemies, could they still find you?  Yeah, Zabasearch is one way to do it.  For most of us, though, it's a lot like the story of the bear above.  You're aiming to not be the easiest target. 

Also remember that most people are too busy thinking about themselves to obsess about you, so unless you come across someone particularly crazy and vengeful or have decided to plant $100 bills in your front yard and word is getting around, there's no value in someone travelling miles to seek you out. 

  • For most people living in large cities, it's okay to make your city of residence public.  Like opting in to newsletters from your favorite stores, sometimes a little bit of information out there can make good things happen (e.g. an old friend decides to get back in touch when in the area). 
  • Make private matters known only to people you trust. 
    • Most crime happens among people who know each other, and chances are you know which of your friends and family you can trust. 
    • Employers may not be "out to get you" but if you're looking to get a job or keep a job, you probably don't want them to read about certain things you post publicly that might reflect badly on them.
  • Facebook and Twitter are by default not private, so even if you decide to keep that the way it is, just remember who your audience is.  More than just your Twitter followers have probably read your post about Charlie Sheen, for example, since it's very easy to search for tweets without ever logging in.
  • Your video of the kids posted on Youtube is probably fine, so long as you keep the above points in mind. 

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