How can I use social networks safely?

Updated:July 2016

Social networks help with making and maintaining contacts. They are also useful for research and promoting your work. But they can compromise your privacy and safety, and can make it easier for people to track your activity.

While there is some technology that can assist you in better security, being safe with social websites really comes down to adopting a set of behaviours. Be aware of the risks of using sites like Facebook or Twitter, and learn how to limit the information you share with the rest of the world that can make you more trackable and be put at greater personal risk.

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Social network best practices

Here are 12 things you can do to help improve your privacy and safety on social websites. 

1) Check your privacy settings... Often!
Websites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter regularly update security and privacy settings without warning.
Check these frequently to see if anything has changed, or if new features are sharing information you didn't intend.

Sometimes they also launch new features that can help improve your privacy as well.
Some websites, such as Facebook, let you view your page as if you are another user. Alternately, you can log out of the site and then visit your own page to see what's appearing to the world.

  • AVG has discontinued PrivacyFix, which we featured previously - but there are other ways to protect yourself. Find out here.
  • Turn off Geo-tagging options: Many social network sites automatically post where you are along with your update. Turn this off to make sure your exact location is kept confidential.

2) Use stronger passwords
Actually, use pass phrases, or pass sentences. We've got a resource page on how to do it!

3) Turn on 2-factor authentication
Facebook, Twitter, Google and a number of others offer this feature. When you log in using a new device or location, the site will send your mobile phone a code that acts as a second password. Some sites will ask if you want them to remember it, or just let you use it this one time. This keeps others from being able to get into your accounts from elsewhere, on devices you haven't approved. If your computer is stolen or seized, you can log into your accounts somewhere else and delete that computer from your profile, effectively locking it out.

4) Make sure you are logged out of your accounts when you’re not using them
This can help prevent other websites you may visit from posting on your behalf, and can reduce the chance that a hacker could access these accounts. It will prevent others from being able to access your information if you have been using a public computer, or if you've left your phone unlocked.

5) Use a ‘professional account’
Many freelancers use two separate accounts on the same social website to divide their personal and professional lives. This helps you keep from revealing personal information to sources or contacts. It also helps keep your personal friends separate from your working contacts, or from posting personal information about you that you wouldn't want others to know.

When doing this, you need to really manage how your personal account is searchable within the service and online, and also avoid adding the same contacts to both accounts, otherwise you'll be making an instant link that connects the two profiles.

6) Create a "Clean Account."
This is a variation on the tactic of having a professional one. Here you create an alternate version of yourself that doesn't include information that could be dangerous for you. Use it to befriend a few people who aren't doing anything controversial and occasionally post uncontroversial but authentic content that doesn't reveal much about your personal life. Use photos of food, links to film reviews or other kind of things that wouldn't be that interesting to a potential adversary

This will work in the event of a spot check, but may not stop someone who is really researching you. Some sites like Facebook let you keep your profile from being searched, so you may want to activate that, but it will be visible to a persistent investigation with enough time to find others you're connected to.

7) Don't have too many social network accounts
Having said the above, remember that you need to manage each account you've got. Some freelancers choose not to be on Facebook. Others have suggested that it may look more suspicious if you're asked (while in detention or entering a country for example) to show your Facebook profile and claim to not have one. It's generally advisable to have some online presence somewhere that will match your name and the general information you're giving. Be careful about online content that could appear to contradict what you may say in person.

8) Consider everything that you post online to be public, and act accordingly
Never post content which you mean to keep private, or information of a personal nature, such as telephone numbers, a home address, or your current location. Even ‘hidden’ forums, or 'private' groups such as those on Facebook (like the Vulture Club) should be treated with caution. Once you post something there, others can easily share it elsewhere, and if one member is hacked, all your posts in that group are visible.

9) Don't add everyone as a "friend."
Have an actual connection with everyone you include in your network. Come up with a criteria for adding a connection and stick to it. If a profile of someone you know tries to add you as a "friend" on Facebook or another similar service, contact them off the site to make sure it's really them.

10) Don't use social networks for assignments
Social sites are oriented around sharing , and are not the place for confidential information, sending or receiving sensitive files or media or setting meetings that you don't want to be widely known about. Remember, your communication is stored by the site, and you don't have the ability to control what happens with it after you've posted it. There are also numerous ways your account (or your contact's account) can be hacked or accessed.

Be careful how you present yourself on open social network pages if you're planning to work in areas where a public profile could get you into trouble. Look at your pages from the perspective of the authority who may deny your entry.
 11) Limit posting when working in ‘sensitive’ regions
It may seem obvious, but it is not unheard of for a journalist to travel through hostile environments geo-tagging along the way. This can be extremely dangerous. If you don’t want people to know where you are when on assignment, then make sure this feature isn't being used on the social sites you use!
 

12) Use a separate browser for social networks
One way to separate your work from your social sites is to use different web browsers. As an example: You may use Chrome or Safari for your social network sites and Firefox for your work related activity. Chrome lets you create different personas, which you can flip between, keeping your work activities separated from your personal ones.

One option is to use a single source browser (SSB) for your social network page. An SSB is an application dedicated to accessing pages from a single source. Fluid (Mac) and Bubbles (Windows) are two examples. These keep your social activity in a box, away from the rest of your work. They won’t keep you entirely off the radar, though, so use this with other tactics and don’t forget to maintain your privacy settings.

 


Further resources

  • Most social networking sites produce their own guides on how to use their services safely, and it’s worth checking out this information straight from the source. The Facebook and Twitter guides are particularly useful for an introduction to the habits and methods we have discussed in this resource.
  • Safego by Bitdefender was a free fraud detection service for Facebook and Twitter that scanned profiles of you and your connections for scams, phishing attempts, and other malicious activity. However, it has since been discontinued and they've recommended the Traffic Light extension.
     

Image credit: Andreas Eldh.
Created: July 2013

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