Social Networking and Privacy: What You Need to Know

By Alana Beltzer

Social networking websites have made it easier than ever to catch up with friends, follow the latest news or trends, and develop professional contacts. While these websites provide many valuable opportunities to connect and interact, they often share your personal information in ways that could make you vulnerable to identity theft and increase the risk of malware on your computer or smartphone.

The guidelines below provide what you need to know to help protect your computer and personal information.

Review each website’s privacy policies
When signing up for any social networking website, you should make yourself familiar with the website’s privacy policy. Many websites will automatically share your email address and other information with advertisers, leading to an increase of spam, unless you specifically request otherwise.

Control access to your private information
Every social networking website has privacy settings that allow you to restrict access to certain types of information, such as photos and identity information. Some websites make unannounced changes to the way these settings work; so it is important to revisit your settings periodically to ensure that they have not changed.

Limit the personal information you post
Posting personal information online can make you vulnerable to criminals, such as those looking to steal your identity or break into your home. Posting vital details, such as your full name, favorite colors, date of birth, and other personal information, makes it easier for identity thieves to hack into your online accounts.

Remember that what you post remains online
Think twice before you share photos, videos, or other information; what you post on the Internet can have unintended consequences. Even if you later delete an item, it has most likely already been cached or saved somewhere online. Also remember that what you post on the Internet is there for potential employers, future acquaintances, and the rest of the world to see.

Avoid suspicious-looking third-party applications
Third-party applications are the items such as quizzes and games that require access to your personal data and contacts for activation. While some of these applications can be fun diversions, many are simply malware masquerading as something fun in order to get you to click them.

Be cautious when expanding your social network
Do you really know all your 500 Facebook friends? It is very easy for people to misrepresent themselves on social networking websites. Once someone is part of your network, it is easy for him or her to gather your personal information for other purposes, such as hacking into your email or online banking account. Be certain you know the person before initiating or accepting an invitation to connect.

Be wary of spreading false information
If a story seems dubious or an ad seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be careful about passing along information that may be inaccurate or comes from an unknown and untrusted source.

Defend your personal information with strong passwords
Use a strong password, one that cannot be easily guessed, on each of your accounts. If your password is compromised, it is possible that someone could access your account and pretend to be you on your social networking websites. For information on setting a strong password, please see the article on creating strong passwords.

Update your system software regularly
Keep your computer’s operating system software up-to-date to protect against security loopholes and hacking attempts that occur on social networks from time to time. For more information on updating your system software, see the Maintaining Windows Security and Maintaining Mac OS X Security pages.

Use and maintain antivirus software
Along with keeping on top of system software updates, it is important to use and maintain antivirus software to prevent your computer from being infected by viruses and exploited by hackers. Since new viruses are constantly being developed, you need to make sure that your antivirus software has the latest virus definitions. For information on downloading and using antivirus software supported by ITS, go to the Sophos Endpoint Security page.

As social networking continues to grow, allowing us to connect to people in new and interesting ways, it will also undoubtedly continue to challenge our privacy and expose our computers to new malware. However, by following the basic practices listed above, you will be able to safely take advantage of what these websites have to offer.

To learn more about using social networking websites safely, click the links below. The following articles are from the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) website.

Socializing Securely: Using Social Networking Services (PDF)

Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks

Guidelines for Publishing Information Online