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Online Safety, Security, and Privacy

This guide looks at the concept of general online safety and security.

Social Media Safety

Many (some reports put it at very nearly all) of us, use social media in some form or another daily. For all sorts of reasons. There are lots of studies about the benefits of drawbacks of social media, but one potential huge drawback is increased privacy and security concerns and the way social media opens us up to new dangers.

There are ways to stay safer as we engage:

  • Keep your social media accounts secured with good passwords, possibly with two-factor authentication.
  • Limit the amount of personal information you share.
    • Assume anything you share, have shared, or will share to be permanently indexed/stored somewhere.
    • Anything you share, even just to select friends, even through apps like Snapchat, can be copied/screengrabbed and reshared without you knowing (there are dozens and dozens of subreddits that share social media posts, and that's one of the more scrupulous/visible sites).
  • Take advantage of privacy settings and set up friends/etc groups before it becomes an issue.
  • Check your account settings semi-regularly to see if new options have showed or if the defaults have changed.
  • Check your profile regularly (including checking them while signed out or use built in tools) to see what is showing up as from you.
  • Respect your friends/coworkers/family/etc privacy wishes and ask they do the same for you.
  • Tell your friends/coworkers/family/etc if you see suspicious activity on their accounts, and ask them to do the same for you.
  • Be aware of strangers, especially when they attempt to engage outside of normal protocols.
  • Be wary of games, quizzes, and third party accounts/apps that require wide swaths of permissions or share details for you.
  • Delete old accounts on social media platforms you no longer want to keep up to date.

Note that in some cases, things like your birthday (how easy it to say "I'm 21 today!" or have Facebook simply make friends birthday posts exposing your age/details public information on your profile) can be used to spoof you online and sometimes is one of the few key pieces of information used to verify it is "you" if someone is trying to access some accounts. Posting your location in real time (such as vacation shots, being on flights, or even just saying you are going to the cafeteria for lunch) can be used by folks to identify when you are not at home or by stalkers to track you. Keep that information friends only, in other words.

The Problem with Quizzes

One of the surprising flaws of social media is that sometimes the fun, social parts of them have complicated relationships with online security. As mentioned above, innocuous sharing of your birthday or vacation can lead to security complications. But that is unfortunately not all that can lead to problems. How many times have you seen an online "chain quiz" that asks you to post stuff like:

  • Favorite drink
  • First car you owned
  • Favorite color
  • Favorite book
  • Do you prefer running/swimming
  • First pet you owned
  • Where you grew up
  • Favorite type of pasta
  • Favorite pizza topping

While many of the questions (and the majority of such quizzes) are innocuous, note that some of those questions (first car, first pet, and, depending on how you answer it, even where you grew up) can be used to answer common security questions about yourself. Even something like "favorite book" can be used to help answer a security question like "favorite character". 

Sometimes, you get examples that say things like, "Use the month you were born to pick a color and the day you were born to pick a type of vehicle and that's your ride of the future!" With that information, combined with things like age or other posts, someone can work out your exact birthday. 

Is any of this an actual sign of trouble and should you be concerned because you answered one of those years ago? Maybe not, but hackers do use these quizzes to build up information about you and even find precise answers to your security questions. This information can make you the target of phishing attacks, and have accounts you thought were you secure become compromised. Again, the trick is not to avoid it altogether, but to take note of privacy settings and to use caution.