Thoughts on Online Privacy & How to Protect Yourself [OR How Facebook Can Save Your Identity]

The following is an excerpt of an email I wrote in response to this article Facebook can ruin your life. And so can MySpace, Bebo

A lot of the current batch of social networks have very poorly designed privacy controls. On facebook for instance, it’s very hard to tell which of your contacts have access to different which areas of your profile and it’s not entirely clear how much of this information is accessible via google. In fact, there is a bug in Facebooks’ architecture that will allow any of your friends to see a newsfeed item (not the full post) for all of your activities via the official Facebook API, even if you have set up your account to block certain users from seeing this. Also, facebook is also more closed off then some of the old social networks, so it might not even be clear to most users that their profiles show up on google. Combine all of these factors; bugs, security holes, phishing attacks, user ignorance/naivety and you’ve got a shitstorm waiting to happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next couple of years a big player is completely knocked out of the game by a major attack and the bad press that follows. Not too long ago a file containing nearly 1 million myspace usernames and passwords was making it’s rounds; it went largely unreported, but if a major news outlet had picked it up it would’ve been very bad for myspace.

That said, I think a lot of the people mentioned in this article probably didn’t have great legal representation. Writing a journal entry about how much you hate your job, doesn’t neccessarily mean you’re a bad idea. Making a drunken post about how much of a drunk you are, doesn’t mean much if that’s the only time you’ve had a drink in 6 months. Accidentally adding someone to your friends list on a social network because you didn’t know how to use the interface, is not nearly the same thing as banging on someone’s front door demanding to speak with them.

Interestingly, I’ve found that using my real name on websites/networks is a good way of protecting my online reputation. Social networking and similar sites will generally have much higher weighting in google then the average site – networking type sites are built with search engine optimization in mind. So if you are a member of a number of these types of sites and you post content that you are proud of on a every once in awhile, when someone does a search for your name they will almost always find content that you can vouch for. Additionally, if there is any kind of negative content about you somewhere on the web – say someone has posted something mean about you in their blog, or even worse if articles about your latest criminal conviction in show up in a local newspaper’s website – it is very likely that when a potential employer does a search for your name, your profiles on larger websites will show up before these negative articles on smaller websites.

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