Perhaps, no other word has undergone as much shape-shifting in the last few years as “privacy”. The concept, especially with the mainstreaming of social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut, has metamorphosed into a fuzzy mess, with borders increasingly blurry and confines increasingly limited.
The story of Anoushka Shankar’s Facebook stalker may make the Internet look like a dangerous place for the unprepared, but with the right amount of prudence, you can maintain your privacy without having to give up on your online vices. While Facebook has faced enormous criticism for its lax privacy policies in the past, it’s wisened up now and features a detailed master control panel of privacy features, and the right combination of toggles and switches can help you put the personal back in your personal life. Here are five simple ways to help you define privacy online:
Learn the Privacy Settings
Privacy Settings is the second menu option under “Settings” in the big blue bar on top of every Facebook page. An important first step is defining who gets to see your contact information. Not all “friends” on Facebook need to be privy to your telephone number, for example. Proceed to the “Info” tab on your profile and click “Edit” under Contact information. Each item in that list can be customized to be viewable only to specific people.
It’s also best to be careful with what you put up in this section. “Don’t upload material that contains hints to your passwords,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based non-profit civil society group, The Centre for Internet and Society. “Often, the answers to the secret question used to remind users of their password on sensitive online services can be determined by examining social networking content.” The name of your pet, birth date and names of schools are the usual secret questions and common information on profiles. “This is increasingly being targeted by hackers who use social engineering as their method of choice,” he says.
Organize your online social life
“Group your friends and fine-tune access-control over your social network content,” says Abraham. “Facebook allows you to granularly control who sees what. Configure this and then test your configuration before uploading sensitive content.”
Click on “Friends” on the top blue bar and select “Create new list” to begin organizing your friends. A useful distinction to start with is “Family” and “Friends”. While the latter might like to see photos of parties you attended last week, the former may not necessarily need to. It’s also important, says Abraham, to test your groupings to see if everything works. “Testing can be done by sitting with close friends who you can shift from group to group,” he says.
“Don’t upload material that might embarrass your future self: Text, images and video content that might be perfectly acceptable to your teen peers may not be acceptable to a future employer,” says Abraham. Rants against bosses or co-workers are highly unadvised and it’s best to stay away from anything inflammatory or potentially damaging. “Social networks have policies regarding data retention that change according to their commercial ambition and performance. Thus, in future, you may find it impossible to delete embarrassing content.”
Hide yourself from Google
To hide your profile from Google searches, go to “Privacy Settings”, click on “Search Privacy Settings” and deselect the box that says “create a public search listing for me and submit it for search engine indexing”. While that will hide your profile from showing up in search engines, the same can’t be said for content that you post there. “Don’t upload material that you would not want featured in mass media: Security compromises in social network services are usually systemic,” says Abraham. “Last year, 17GB of private photos were stolen from MySpace and were publicly available for download through torrent trackers such as Thepiratebay.org.”
Be careful of applications
Sure, Mafia Wars and FarmVille are great fun, but always read the fine print before using an application. Many are harmless, but some ask you for contact information and others that integrate external online services may make private information on these sites accessible. As an example, don’t give away your geographic location, warns Abraham. “If knowledge about your geographic location can be useful to business competitors, please be judicious when integrating services like Dopplr with your social network.” Dopplr is a site that allows travellers to plan itineraries and arrange meetings with people who might be at the same place at the same time.
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