Social networking sites are no longer solely the realm of geeks and technology-savants, but have become the focus of mainline technology users from flower shops to restaurants seeking efficient and cost-effective ways to communicate with customers. There have been problems with the public nature of social network posts, and students were often told by school district technology departments concerned for their safety that, "you should not share anything on the Internet that you wouldn't tell a stranger on the street."
That advice is still sound, and school staff should follow it as well.
As a Technology Director dealing with technology 24/7 (and sometimes it seems like even more), I am starting to accept that real privacy is a thing of the past. It may be a simple annoyance such as someone being able to find out your hobbies are "scuba diving, rock climbing, base jumping, and creating sand sculptures based on Picasso's paintings," and using that to send you targeted marketing e-mails, but there is also the very real threat of identity theft and other issues. Make sure to protect yourself as much as possible by following a few simple guidelines.
First of all - for students
Remember the mass hysteria in the press that students shouldn't post photos and personal information like addresses because of online predators? Sure, some of that was just fear of the unknown mixed with media hype and ratings sweeps, but the basis is real and still out there. Don't be stupid. You wouldn't tell a stranger on the bus where you live and that you'll be alone there all night. Don't tell ten million strangers on the Internet, either.
Social networking sites have privacy controls. Use them.
Use your profile to limit who can access your profile, wall posts, friends lists, and photos. Social networking sites are a great way to share photos and stories from your last exciting trip with friends and relatives, but does some stranger in Australia really need to see the photos of your donkey ride up the cliffs to Santorini?
Social networking sites let you password protect your account. Don't make it lame.
You know the stories about users that set their password to "password." Believe it. Also believe the stories about using your first, name, spouse's name, and pet's name as your password (although in my experience you more frequently see the pet's name used than the spouse's, which I'm sure is psychologically revealing). The best passwords contain letters and numbers, capital and lower case letters, and special symbols. Something like sailboat28 is better than just sailboat, but sai28lboat is even better. Of course, $@1Lb@T (think about it for a minute) is better still, and while &dLw@5%^8&Q may be the best, writing it on a PostIt note and sticking it on your monitor reduces the security somewhat.
Don't post names - particularly full names - online. Don't let others post your name or private information either.
If you post a photo, you may want to identify it. If you do, stick with a first name (even this may be too much for the identification of children). If you're a certain rabbit-hunting cartoon character, just post the picture and label it Elmer. Labeling your photo - or your site - Elmer P. Fudd III makes it too easy for identity thieves, especially if you have not used the privacy features and they can also look through your site to find out where you went to college, your address, and where you work. Throw in a social security number, and your identity is stolen. I watched a security expert burn through this entire process in less than 5 minutes once; it is much easier than you'd expect.
Don't publish your full birthdate.
Most people assume this is to protect the "children," but it is also a great gift to those seeking to steal an adult's identity for financial fraud as well. There is no way to be 100% protected from identity theft, but come on, at least make it a challenge.
Don't let vanity be your enemy - block search engines when possible.
Sure, it's easier for your friends to find you if you allow them to search the social networking site for your name, but it's also easier for the unsavory element to find you, too. OK, your friends may be unsavory, too, but I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe I should say "criminal element." Sure, you'll need to take the lead and find your less-savvy friends since they'll have difficulty finding you, but it might also help avoid the "joy" of being found by that annoying ex-high school friend who would love to visit and spend two weeks sleeping on your couch.
Remember that with these sites you are linked to your friends - and their friends. To protect yourself, you may need to help educate others as well. If you allow your children to use these sites, you definitely need to make sure they are educated as well.
And don't ever, under any circumstance, post things like, "We're so excited about our upcoming Asian vacation. Just think, two months hiking the full length of the Silk Road. I can't wait until we leave on June 18 (or to get back to our empty home, cleaned out by thieves who read the post).
Please feel free to post your favorite social networking best practices below.