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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

FaceBook, privacy and parenting

Technology and FaceBook can be wonderful things, but sometimes sharing is so not appropriate. I have reconnected with great people. But one friend, who told me in his recent FB post about the website , made me realize that both that wonderful technology and FaceBook - or any social networking site - can be downright scary.

The other day I got a frantic call from my dad, who received an obvious spam message from FaceBook - and among the people listed as her "friends," my name popped up. I am still puzzled how the connection was made (I'm sure it was no coincidence). The revelation of the website made me even more puzzled. Basically it aggregates public information from many sources and lumps it all together for all to see in one convenient package. Some of it is right - like my freaking full name when I enter my email address (that's only supposed to be visible by friends on FaceBook, not the entire world) - and some of it is comical: like the value of my dad's house being $1 million and then some. (One look at my dad's humble abode and you'd know that was far from the truth.)

I realized that much of the information was stuff we normally give out - names and addresses for marketing surveys, free giveaways, social networking sites profiles that aren't made private, and even comments we've left on public forums, etc. If I put in my email address and password, it can tell me the recent net activity of several people on my contacts list: wish list additions, music lists on public sites, and other oddities. Again, probably because their profiles are public, and they use their real names.

This is one thing I've always been paranoid about. Especially with regards to my kids. Although I'm not sure it matters in the end, all of my FaceBook photos and profile information is private to friends only. And all those photos I've been tagged in aren't much help to future employers, because I thankfully led such a boring life in college LOL.

One scary thing I noticed is how many people leave their information - photos, phone number, all of it - open to the public on FaceBook. Unless you're running a business and want to be noticed, I can't see why anyone would want the world to have free access to your drunken photos from last year's New Year's Party or your child's second birthday. One guy from college on my friends list is apparently going through a particularly nasty child custody battle and yet had all his information completely public. I suggested, as did several others on his list, to make his info and photos private, and untag himself from those party photos from over a decade ago, because while we know it's harmless, a judge might not. And a lawyer with high stakes will use anything possible to prove you are a bad father, which could mean your chances of custody have just gone into the crapper.

He ended up changing the somewhat racy (although probably harmless) profile photo of himself shortly after the suggestion was made. I was kind of surprised that someone actually had to tell him to do it, as if the idea had never occurred to him before. It somewhat shocks me that otherwise good, loving parents have little reservation about putting their child's face, detailed pictures of family and home, on the web for everyone to gawk at. That is why, on my other blog dedicated to my kids and family life, I have it password-protected. It might be a pain in the butt to some, but too bad!

Some suggestions I can offer, just off the top of my head:
  • Make your profile information and photos private. I found this hard to do on FaceBook, but once I found all the tools, it made sense. I sometimes wonder if, when they change or update settings and features, if those original privacy settings go out the window. And sometimes I feel like they actually make it harder to hide those private details. This should include the groups you belong to (if you want, anyway) because it can give away details about you as well. One thing I would like to see is for FB to allow me to make fan pages private, too. I don't necessarily want the outside world knowing that I am an alumni of such and such university, fan of Residents of X-Ville or the "My kids go to Blah Blah Elementary School" page, etc.
  • Have numerous emails for different purposes. I must have like a dozen emails for various things, like junkmail, my blog, my personal use, work and other things. If I want to sign up for free offers, mailing lists and coupons, I use the junkmail account. I also don't give my full name when setting up the account. One other thing: as an experiment, open a new email account and see just how long it takes for spammers to show up, even though you haven't given your address to anyone.
  • If you use Yahoo! email or another email program that ties in with social networking and instant messaging, check your privacy settings - it could be revealing your name and information to third parties without your knowledge. I checked on one of my Yahoo! accounts, and it was set to do this as a default setting, which really irritated me. If all those companies who say they're concerned about your information really were, they wouldn't make it readily available to everyone right off the bat without your express permission. Look for buried privacy settings, too. If you're not completely familiar with all these settings, it can get extremely confusing to make sure you're not revealing everything to the outside world.
  • Don't mention anything on your wall that you wouldn't want your mother/father/pastor, etc. reading. While this sounds obvious, sometimes I get strange postings from friends in my feed about going through divorce and the discovery of cheating, people using foul language, and all kinds of weird stuff. Most of the time it's harmless, but again, if your profile is marked 'public,' everyone and his brother is going to know you just found out your spouse has been running around on you behind your back.
  • And related to the previous point, it might be wise to not let your kids have a FB profile. While this is really up to your discretion, I have a real problem knowing my underaged nephews can read the comments of some of those posters I just mentioned. Say I make a comment about 'wood' and some smart ass decides to take it and run with it. Guess what? 12-year-old so and so can read that. Yeah, sure, they're going to see it sooner or later (or probably have already), but even if that's the case, I do not want to be an accessory to it. But then again, I have a thing about kids being on the internet in the first place, so that might just be me.
When we see sites like spokeo lumping all that information we willingly already give out over the internet, it makes you realize how long (and permanent!) our 'paper' trail really is.