As a Dad, and one with over 20 years in emergency services, my imagination sometimes runs away with me. For instance, it really bothers me when people I love get into a car and drive off. I’ve seen too many cars wrapped around utility poles to ever feel like a car is a safe tool. To combat those fears, I like to be prepared and take precautions – whether that be in a car, at home, or online.
For that reason, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you some of my common sense approaches to Internet safety.
Last week I received this email through the comments section of this blog:
“You might not want to be posting to foursquare when your away from home while this website is so popular. http://pleaserobme.com/ I was checking it out for a story and your name came up first. It linked to your Twitter page which links to your blog, which has your Vcard with full address and contact info. Burglars call your home make sure your still out and about and then rob you blind. Sure, maybe it never happens to you but it still doesn’t hurt to be safe.”
Now, little did I know that a huge controversy had just erupted online within the social media space, regarding the above mentioned website. First, I have to admit, the email above made me angry. The detail the reporter describes is not accurate. My home address, phone, or contact information are not available. As a public figure, I’ve gone to great lengths to assure this.
Let me take a few moments to share some of my tips:
- Post Office Box: I first started renting a PO Box when I was working as a street paramedic. This makes it harder for people I may encounter (eg; crazy, mean, angry, criminally insane, etc) to find me. There is a small annual fee, but I like not having to provide my home address all the time.
- Unlisted Phone Number: This used to be more difficult, and it used to cost, but now with more an more people using a mobile phone – or using a service like Google Voice – it is relatively easy to keep your name, number, and address out of the phone book.
- Information: As you know, knowledge is power. So don’t provide any information that strangers could use to gain power over you. For instance, scrub your Facebook (and other profiles) to delete your date-of-birth, middle name, address, phone, children’s names, mother’s maiden name, or anything that could be used to steal your identity. (Also, I routinely delete, or modify, comments that mention my kids’ real names)
- Photos: Through trial and error, I’ve found that photos of my kids get a lot of “hits.” That is, people like to see photos of the kids and the stats of my photos reflect this. It’s for this reason that I’ve locked down my photos to mostly friends and family. But if I do release a photo to the wilds of the Interwebs, I make sure there is nothing potentially provocative, or risqué, to potential perpetrators. I am also careful about what labels I give my photos.
(I once posted a photo of my kids, in a bathtub with our friend’s kids. They were all wearing bathing suits, but apparently the keywords “bathtub” and “kids” generated a lot of hits. That photo was my most viewed photo, ever, until I took it down from public display.)
- Risk/Benefit: Facebook is not a walled garden community anymore, Twitter never was, and other sites have different privacy guidelines that you need to be familiar with. It’s important for you to do your own risk/benefit analysis. If you live in the city, have a high profile position in the community, and/or have the potential to draw attention from unbalanced people, then you need to take additional precautions than I have listed here. Regardless, please consider everything you post to be public. Privacy, in our current culture, is usually considered a myth.
When I first was involved in online social networking, back in the days of Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL, I tended to use pseudonyms and online handles that obscured my true identity. In fact I had several anonymous email addresses that allowed me to reach out, while remaining protected. As my trust of the Intertubes grew – and my own online prowess became more skilled – I began to use my true identity. This happened to coincide with my own developing values of authenticity and transparency.
However, I still make it difficult to connect my online information with my real-life information though. It was frustrating when my employer published a freely available directory with my home address – or when my constituents complained that they didn’t know where I lived. I tried to compensate for that by using geo-location services and picking public places to work – like the Starbucks in St. Helens. While my home number wasn’t published, my Google Voice number would ring both my home phone and my mobile phone. In many ways, I was more accessible – and easier to trace.
We live in the country, and few of the three-tooth hillbillies out here use The Internet, let alone The Email. Most crimes are crimes of opportunity – an unlocked door, a dark alley, etc. Few are going to take the time and energy to track me or my family in order to do violence against us. There is just too much low-hanging fruit elsewhere. But, does that make us immune? Should we be taking greater precautions?
Here are a few scenarios, I’d love to hear my reader’s opinions on how they would handle these situations:
Example One: We are planning a cross-country trip to our former city of residence. We know several dozen people in Colorado and we’d like to see as many as possible, but contacting each family directly is simply unfeasible. In fact, some of those we would love to see, we just won’t have time for. By posting a couple of messages on Facebook or Twitter, it’s like sending up smoke signals and our friends can then organize a gathering where we can all see each other.
We did this about a year, or so, ago – and about 40 of us got together for pizza, laughter, and fun. It was really fun!
However, by posting this online, we announced to the world that our house was empty and our stuff free for the taking. What do you think? Do the benefits of connecting with friends outweigh the risks of broadcasting one’s travel plans?
Example Two: I’m headed into town for a meeting. It’s been a busy day, I’ve been to multiple locations and posted all of them via Foursquare or Brightkite (which simultaneously posts to Twitter and Facebook). By posting my location and plans, I keep those with whom I plan to meet informed, and my wife and kids know where I am. But does this leave my family vulnerable to predators – knowing I’m not home, but my family is?
Example Three: While at the coast for a glorious sunny afternoon excursion, I post a couple of photos or videos of my family enjoying ourselves. Though I don’t post geo-location data, it’s obvious from the photos that we are an hour or more from our home. Does this make our home vulnerable to some enterprising young criminal? Or worse, what if someone at our same location were to take a fancy to my wife and kids, are they more vulnerable because I’ve posted these photos?
Besides the normal paranoia, I’m really curious as to what my readers have to say. You will have trouble convincing me that this online sharing is more dangerous than driving – or eating a carton of ice cream every night, so please, try to be rational. What do you think is reasonable?
PS: We have good neighbors, small arms, and a great watch-dog. 😉