About a month ago, I was contacted by Marta who runs the fabulous fashion blog ‘With Love‘, and she asked me to do a blog post for her about online safety and women. I thought it was a great topic and readily agreed. I have my own blog called ‘Securityphile‘ where I talk about everything and anything related to online privacy, safety and identity.

When it comes to online safety, the most important thing to remember is protecting your personal information. Without any information available about you online, your safety is pretty much guaranteed right? Unfortunately that isn’t a reasonable solution. It’s a rather extreme and narrow view of trying to stay safe, especially in 2011. What needs to happen is there needs to be balance. Today, a lot of our daily activities revolve around the Internet, and it has become the norm. Friends, family, co-workers are all sharing photos, shopping for clothes, listening to music, paying bills, handing in school assignments, talking to friends, etc. etc. – all on the Internet. In order to do any of that, we are required to give up information about ourselves in order to use the services. Typically an email address and a password are required so you can identify yourself. If you are shopping, credit card information and an address are also required so that you can pay for and receive your purchases. That is it. Any other information requested is usually optional.

However, things start to get complicated when you start using sites like Facebook, Twitter , Foursquare, Youtube, or any other social networking related sites. In order to get any reasonable use out of them, you need to participate, but instead of paying for a product or service, you engage and socially interact with others. You end up providing content (which is really just personal information about yourself), and it usually comes in the form of text, images, video or location, all of it delivered to a combination of friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances or strangers. Your friends and family may get to know you better, but so do strangers and acquaintances. Is that something you are comfortable with? If you aren’t comfortable, one way you can control this is by enabling the privacy settings, this way, you know who and who isn’t seeing what you post. In Facebook, the settings are quite granular, but for Twitter, its an all or nothing privacy setting. The feature ‘block this person’ is helpful too! Whatever you use, I highly recommend using privacy settings to control who can see your personal information.

The deal is, the more information you give up, the more people get to know you. This can be a good and bad thing. While it can be good for family and friends, it’s usually a bad idea when it comes to strangers and acquaintances. Then again, I bet there are certain friends or family members that you wouldn’t want to share everything with either am I correct? Strangers will know what you look like, but you don’t know what they look like. You don’t know what their intentions are and you have no way of judging their character. You dont know if they’ve been previously convicted of a crime or are mentally unstable. I would say for the most part, people are generally nice, which is why we tend to let our guard down and trust people. But it also makes it quite difficult to pick out the scary people. It’s tough to judge people sometimes, and people change too. The trick is to find a balance where you can share enough information that lets you participate effectively, yet you don’t end up giving up too much that people can figure out what your daily routine is.

I came up with a list of things to avoid when engaging in an online public discussion:

  • Your age
  • Your birth year
  • Marital status
  • Where you work/go to school
  • People you live with or if you live alone
  • Expensive items like cameras or computer equipment, jewelry
  • Your location, past, present and future (including vacations)
  • Your home address and the area you live in
  • Your main method of transportation (car or public transit)
  • Names of Family members and their relation to you

While the individual pieces of information above may mean nothing on their own, when you combine them with other pieces of information taken from Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare, it can give anyone a deeper insight about yourself, knowledge that you normally might not divulge. When sharing information online, I recommend being vague when it comes to personal information. If you want to share personal info with people, use a non-public channel like email or instant messaging. This way, you control who you are sharing it with.

Its not just your physical safety that you have to worry about. You need to protect your identity online as well. If someone gains access to your personal accounts like email, Facebook or online banking account, they may blackmail you, steal financial information from you or from your place of work. They may choose to take over your accounts and impersonate you. I’ve seen it happen to many friends on Twitter and Facebook. Have you?

How to Protect Yourself

Test yourself by checking your Gmail or Facebook to see if your account has been accessed by someone else. I have seen friends on Twitter talk about how they discover their Facebook accounts are being accessed – from a different state or province. Checking Gmail and Facebook can tell you if your safety/identity has already been compromised. If it has change your password immediately! If you have your own domain name, make sure you have chosen the privacy option for your WHOIS record. Doing a WHOIS look up will tell you if you are unnecessarily exposing your home address, when you should be keeping it private.

More Important steps you should take to protect yourself online:

  • Always use a different password for different accounts
  • Change all of your passwords. Every 4 months
  • Back up your data, documents, pictures, music on your computer and smart phone
  • When using public, free wifi connections, use it only to browse for public information. Dont use it to check email, access Facebook, online banking,
  • Same goes for public computers that are shared, you dont know what previous users have done to the computer
  • Answers to secret questions shouldn’t be information you can figure out from Facebook or Twitter. This was how Sarah Palin’s email got hacked. (Its not a good idea to use the secret question ‘what is your mothers maiden name when she is a friend on Facebook.)
  • Google yourself and create alerts whenever your name appears online
  • Keep your operating system updated, even if its MAC OS X
  • Use anti virus

I also spoke to some female friends to get their perspectives about online security and to understand how they protect themselves. All of them have a presence online, typically its a combination of a blog, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc. etc., all of which they incorporate into their regular, daily lives. I was quite surprised to hear they haven’t had any major issues with being harassed, stalked or had their identities stolen. When I delved further into the issue, it turns out everyone already practiced some form of safety routine. I was quite impressed by their knowledge and the various methods they used to protect their privacy. They use updated anti virus, update their operating systems on a regular basis, change their passwords or keep them in a safe location. Almost everyone I spoke to have set up separate email addresses, one for strangers and acquaintances and the other is for family and friends. Most importantly, they censor themselves and are careful about the content they post online. I am proud of my friends!

At the end of the day, it’s really up to you to decide what to share and what not to share and to whom. Its the type of information and the amount that you share online that affects your safety. Always think about what you are about to say online, you might forget what you said 2 years ago, but the Internet won’t. Always keep in mind that the information you post online can be interpreted differently by different people. Being online can make you closer to friends and family and when used properly, it can keep strangers and acquaintances at an arms length.