Protecting Yourself on Social Networks

Social networking sites are some of the most popular websites and tools we use on the Internet. Facebook, Google+, and Twitter have hundreds of millions of users each.

Social networks are often built on the idea of sharing posts, photographs, and personal information. Yet they have also become forums for organizing and speech—much of which relies on privacy and pseudonymity. Thus, the following questions are important to consider when using social networks: How can I interact with these sites while protecting myself? My basic privacy? My identity? My contacts and associations? What information do I want keep private and who do I want to keep it private from?

Depending on your circumstances, you may need to protect yourself against the social media site itself, against other users of the site, or both.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re setting up your account:

Registering for a Social Media Site Anchor link

  • Do you want to use your real name? Some social media sites have so-called "real name policies," but these have become more lax over time. If you do not want to use your real name when registering for a social media site, do not.
  • When you register, don't provide more information than is necessary. If you are concerned with hiding your identity, use a separate email address. Be aware that your IP address may be logged at registration.
  • Choose a strong password and, if possible, enable two-factor authentication.
  • Beware of password recovery questions whose answers can be mined from your social media details. For example: “What city were you born in?” or “What is the name of your pet?” You may want to choose password recovery answers that are false. One good way to remember the answers to password recovery questions, should you choose to use false answers for added security, is to note your chosen answers in a password safe.

Check the Social Media Site's Privacy Policy Anchor link

Remember that information stored by third parties is subject to their own policies and may be used for commercial purposes or shared with other companies, for example, marketing firms. We know that reading privacy policies is a near-impossible task, but you may want to take a look at sections on how your data is used, when it is shared with other parties, and how the service responds to law enforcement requests.

Social networking sites, usually for-profit businesses, often collect sensitive information beyond what you explicitly input—where you are, what interests and advertisements you react to, what other sites you've visited (e.g. through "Like" buttons). It can be helpful to block third-party cookies and use tracker-blocking browser extensions to make sure extraneous information isn't being passively transmitted to third parties.

Some social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, have business relationships with data brokers in order to target advertisements more effectively. EFF has guides that walk you through how to opt-out of these tracking schemes:

Change Your Privacy Settings Anchor link

Specifically, change the default settings. For example, do you want to share your posts with the public, or only with a specific group of people? Should people be able to find you using your email address or phone number? Do you want your location shared automatically?

Remember, privacy settings are subject to change. Sometimes, these privacy settings get stronger and more granular; sometimes not. Be sure to pay attention to these changes closely to see if any information that was once private will be shared, or if any additional settings will allow you to take more control of your privacy.

Your Social Graph Anchor link

Remember that you’re not the only person who can give away potentially sensitive data about yourself. Your friends can tag you in photos, report your location, and make their connections to you public in a variety of ways. You may have the option of untagging yourself from these posts, but privacy does not work retroactively. You may want to talk to your friends about what you do and do not feel comfortable having them share about you in public.

Last reviewed: 
2015-02-10
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