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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Social Networks And Security Settings (And You)

It should go without saying (by now, I hope) that social networks are a great way to keep in touch (or reconnect with) friends of old, new, and in between.  It has been my experience that sites like MySpace and Facebook are excellent tools to share ideas (whether similar or otherwise) with friends, family members, and even local news stations are getting in on this great tool.  There are, however, drawbacks to having such an open-book lifestyle.  Some of the more common drawbacks are the increasing demands of employers to invade personal lives, intrude on people's personal business, and even use that information against their own employees.

One of the more serious threats, notwithstanding businesses who wish to use social networks as their own personal "big-brother", is the reality that there are individuals who seek to destroy personal lives for their own personal gain.  One such practice has been the increasing presence of scams that appear to be genuine, but in truth are designed to elude you into a false sense of "doing the right thing."  Other practices are quite common that include getting you to provide your information in hopes of "hacking" your social network account, and post messages, videos, links, and photos that are pornographic in nature, or just simply ruin your good name.

It's worth noting that aside from my own personal experiences using such sites, I've watched news tips and reports on Facebook, MySpace, etc, and have found that while some of their tips are genuinely good, a lot of it is designed to scare you into seclusion.  While it is true that many of us fear that someone may one day steal our identity with something as simple as using a No. 2 pencil (this is not new, by the way), we can however, take some steps to minimize a potential threat, or even neutralize an existing one.  On that note, it should be completely clear that if you're not using common sense, you shouldn't be on any social network sites, and should be sticking with good ol' email.  Better yet, stick to the regular snail mail.

On a related note, social networking sites can cause problems within a family, and usually dealing with children and/or pre-teens/teens.  If you are a parent, there are some tips that may prove helpful while only minimally encroaching your child's privacy.  It should go without saying that there are potentially hundreds of threats that children face daily while using the internet, the least of which has almost nothing to do with acts of a sexual nature.  I emphasize "almost", because it's not necessarily what predators are after.  I'll probably cover this more in an opinion blog later down the road, but the best defense for any parent against this would be to "TALK TO YOUR KIDS!"  My best advice is to be an active listener, and be reasonable.

So, how does one protect themselves against the seemingly endless array of online threats when using social networking sites like Facebook?  What steps are practiced widely?  As a computer tech, I can say with certainty that there is no simple solution, but there are simple steps that anyone with a brain can do to minimize those threats.

(One final note before getting into the details, if you're that concerned over being safe, it's probably an exaggeration, but my advice would be to shut down your PC, stay indoors, and lock your doors, and windows up nice and tight)

Since some social network sites are different in how your account interacts with others, I'm going to base my observations from using Facebook.  If you are having difficulty with the social network site of your choice, please refer to that site's help or frequently asked questions page for more information.

Some steps you can do:

1) Settings - Whether it's privacy settings or the account settings, this can do a multitude of tasks designed to protect you.  First and foremost, unless you are like me and you know exactly who you are interacting with, you'll probably want to limit the information that people can see.  On Facebook, there are ways to set the privacy level of most given sections of your profile to either "Everyone", "Only Friends", "Friends of Friends", and "Customize".  There's also an option where you can selectively block people from accessing certain information, or block them from your profile completely.  This is also true for the photo albums and their respective settings.  You'll want to lock out anyone who might find your night of passion with a hot date objectionable.

2) Wall/Status Posting - Obviously there are some things that don't need to be communicated over the internet, such as "I'm going to take a huge dump!"  That's probably something you want to keep inside your head, rather than share with the world.  There will, however, be some grey areas about what's acceptable to post, and what should never be posted.  While everyone should agree that posting something like "I hate my fucking boss" is just not acceptable, especially when someone, say a co-worker, sees that, and decides to play the politics game, which can land a person in trouble very quickly, and quite possibly fired.  A huge debate is going on about that, and while I agree that we have rights to free speech, it can however damage an employers' reputation, no matter how warranted it may be.  Maybe that person feels he or she is being mistreated at work, or treated unfairly, or perhaps they deserve the unfair treatment for their poor performance.  Whatever the reason may be, posts like this should never circulate on a scale that rivals even the best phone chains.  An obvious post like "got a date with a hot blonde from the mall" after calling in sick would be VERY inappropriate, especially if that person is friends with an assistant manager or something like that.  The key here is to use your best judgment, use logic, and above all, use common sense.

3) Usernames and Passwords - This is perhaps a most understated point, and couldn't ever be stated enough.  NEVER, NEVER, NEVER let anyone know your username and password... On ANYTHING!  Not even a close friend, not a co-worker, not even your most trusted computer technician should know YOUR username and YOUR password.  Statistically speaking, some 85% of social network users use their personal email address, and the same password to access said email account as their login for Facebook.  If anyone knows this information, even by accident, it could mean trouble for the victim.  My best personal advice is either to never give out your information (which is the top advice of ALL computer techs), or if anyone in your circle of trust needs to know that information, set up a separate email account and password specifically for Facebook.  This is good for two reasons.  One, you can minimize the damage by immediately changing your associated email address on Facebook, and two, if you cannot change it (usually because it's been changed by the "suspect" who has your login information), this lets you deactivate the email account, so that the suspect in question can't change anything else, and therefore will be stuck with an account that can't be closed due to the email no longer active.  (This has happened to me with an old MySpace account)

4) Applications - Applications can be a lot of fun, and can be even more fun when shared with friends who have similar interests.  Though there are some apps that shouldn't be shared for the same reason some statuses shouldn't be as well.  Do yourself a favor.  If you are really going to add that funny application that has some mature content to it, make sure you don't post anything that someone in your family might see.  Remember what I said in my previous blog about "if grandma shouldn't see it"?  Same is true for applications on social network sites.

5) Fan Pages - This can be both good and bad.  I'll start with the bad first.  Once again, if family members see that you are a fan of "porn", that might cause some problems, so it's probably best to avoid the obvious material that is objectionable to some.  Similarly, there are sometimes fan pages to TV shows and movies, which are harmless in nature, but can spark sharp differences between friends, family members, and sometimes leads to severed communications.  Just like applications, this can be good though in the sense that you can share similar interests with friends and family.

6) Links - Setting up links for people in your friends list to review can be a good way to get your ideas posted, and have a resource to back those ideas up.  Some links are well-intentioned, but can have devastating effects.  It goes without saying that a posted link about sex might get some friends' attention, but it might also get unwanted attention from family members who have children who view YOUR page.  Once again, if grandma shouldn't see it, your kids shouldn't either.

7) Comments - This is one of those lovely topics that seem to bite people in the ass more times than I'm sure anyone cares to admit.  Comments are very powerful, and sometimes can have a lasting, but unwanted result. I'm talking about comments that are, at times, objectionable to some individuals.  Honestly, I couldn't care less who reads my comments, but over time I've been selective in what comments are visible on my profile.  Nevertheless, some comments should remain as inside thoughts in your head.  I've seen some pretty nasty comments that include racist remarks, political bigotry, and even some content that includes acts of a sexual (and grossly peculiar) nature.  This has led me to believe that a person's comments can sometimes reflect what a person is really thinking and feeling, but would probably not say in a face-to-face meeting with a person offline.  Although, this is not necessarily true, it once again comes to the point that if grandma shouldn't see it, your family, and even more-so, your employer shouldn't see it either.  Posting something like "Oh man, I want to just take off her clothes, rip her panties off and bang her every which way but loose" is probably going to get a lot of male friends' attention, but will certainly turn off a lot of women, and even more so, they'll drop you like a bad habit.

8) Groups - No matter if you're using social network sites, or sites like Yahoo that utilize "groups", they can be fun, sometimes informative, and even provide valuable information about a product, service, idea, or just a fun online get-together with friends who have similar interests.  Just like the aforementioned sections, groups can also be bad when friends, family, and even employers might put you in a negative light depending on what groups you belong to.  Groups can also provide insight into what a person likes, dislikes, and in some cases, tell a prospective employer why they should NOT hire you.  Again, do yourself a favor.  If you are applying for jobs, DO NOT give employers your personal email address.  Instead, give them an email that has been specifically set up to receive employer applications, and one that can't be searched for on social network sites.

9) Friends/Family - Okay, this one is another one of the grey areas that people are a little hot (like my friend John Brown might say) about.  Certainly, social network sites are fun and useful when it comes to connecting with current friends, reconnecting with old friends, and even connect with family members that are hundreds or thousands of miles away.  However, they can also be hurtful if there are clashes between friends you know from column A, and those from column B, as well as family members.  I've been extremely fortunate that most of my friends know me well enough, and most are of the same type of personality, that there is rarely a moment where clashes occur.  That being said, clashes can often occur where there is a strong difference of opinion on both sides of an argument.  I think that it's a great thing to be able to share ideas openly, but there is a point where some ideas, no matter how well-intentioned, can be hurtful, even if that wasn't the intention of the originating post.  Does this mean you need to ask if you can share your thought?  No, but a word of advice.  Use your brain, it's there for a reason.  Knowing who might benefit from an idea, or benefit from some new way of looking at an idea can be helpful to everyone on your friends list.  Better yet, instead of mass posting it to the world about your idea, send it to a few individual friends or family members and get their thoughts about it.

10) Profile Information - There isn't much to discuss here.  You can provide as much or as little information as you want, but a good rule of thumb would be to limit what you expose of yourself to others.  Again, this goes back to the privacy and account settings mentioned earlier.  I've heard of stories where a suspect got a victim's name, address, and phone number just by looking it up on Facebook.  However, what that story DOES NOT include is that person was probably careless with their settings and was showing it to EVERYONE.  I can't stress this enough, but I'm a strong advocate of COMMON SENSE!  There's an old phrase that says "Use it or lose it"  My twist on that is, you should "USE YOUR BRAIN" or "LOSE YOUR PERSONAL LIFE", because it can and will be exposed if you are not careful.

A final word on social network sites, if you are new to using such sites, my advice is to get to know the settings.  Play around with them, and see what works for you.  Often times, I get people who come up to me and ask where a setting is, and after guiding them to that setting, they forget it quickly.  Practice makes perfect, and if you visit the settings page regularly on your favorite social network of choice, you should be able to navigate your way into using the security settings that are provided by the developers.  Use them wisely, but again, use common sense, it does work!

On my next blog, we'll get more into the opinions side of social networks, starting with parenting.  I'd like to ask my readers that if there is a point you'd like for me to make in my next blog, I want to know about it.  Send me your ideas to either my Facebook inbox, or email me at!

Have a comment? Suggestion? A topic you'd like to have discussed on my blog? Email me at And if I don't know the answer, I'll post up information on who to ask, where to go, or what to do to get your answer. :) Until then, have a great day, and I hope you've enjoyed reading my computer tips so far!