Protecting Yourself on Social Networks
Last Reviewed: October 13, 2023
Social networks are among the most popular websites on the internet. Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram have over a billion users. Social networks were generally built on the idea of sharing posts, photographs, and personal information. They have also become forums for organizing and speech. Any of these activities can rely 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 to 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 network itself, against other users of the site, or both.
Tips to Keep in Mind When Creating an Account anchor link
Do you want to use your legal 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 legal name when registering for a social media site, do not. If you choose to register with another name you’re known by, consider who it is that knows you by this name, and if it makes sense for you to appear on this site with it.
When you register, don't provide more information than is necessary. If you are concerned with hiding your identity, use a separate email address and avoid giving your phone number. Both of these pieces of information can identify you individually and can link different accounts together. A number of services offer temporary disposable email addresses for this purpose. You can also consider a single-use email, sometimes called aliases, that generate a random email address, like "RTkIotoi[at]emailservice.com," and then forward those emails to your real account. Some email services offer these aliases for free. Bear in mind that for both of these temporary email or alias services, you are entrusting these companies with whatever data passes through them.
Be careful when choosing a profile photo or image. In addition to metadata that might include the time and place the photo was taken, the image itself can provide some information. Before you choose a picture, ask: was it taken outside your home or workplace? Are any addresses or street signs visible? Even the smallest of details, such as reflections captured in the image, can reveal unique identifying points of the location it was taken.
Be aware that your IP address may be logged at registration.
Beware of password recovery questions such as “What city were you born in?” or “What is the name of your pet?” because their answers can be mined from your social media details. 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 manager. Most password managers have areas alongside saved login credentials where you can store such notes.
Information stored by third parties is subject to their own policies and may be used for commercial purposes or shared with other companies, like marketing firms. While reading privacy policies is a near-impossible task, you may want to read the sections that describe how your data is used, when it is shared with other parties, how the company handles deleting your account if you no longer want to use it, and how the service responds to law enforcement requests.
Social networking sites are usually for-profit businesses and often collect sensitive information beyond what you explicitly provide—where you are, what interests and advertisements you react to, what other sites you've visited (e.g. through “Like” buttons). Consider blocking third-party cookies and using tracker-blocking browser extensions to make sure extraneous information isn't being passively transmitted to third parties.
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?
Even though every social media platform has its own unique settings, you can find some patterns.
Privacy settings tend to answer the question: “Who can see what?” Here you’ll probably find settings concerning audience defaults (“public,” “friends of friends,” “friends only,” etc.), location, photos, contact information, tagging, and if people can find your profile in searches.
Security (sometimes called “safety”) settings will probably have more to do with blocking/muting other accounts, and if you want to be notified if there is an unauthorized attempt to authorize your account. Sometimes, you’ll find login settings—like two-factor authentication and a backup email/phone number—in this section. Other times, these login settings will be in an account settings or login settings section, along with options to change your password.
Take advantage of security and privacy “check-ups.” Facebook, Google, and other major websites offer “check-up” features. These tutorial-style guides walk you through common privacy and security settings in plain language and are an easy way to get your settings right.
On your phone, you may have to switch out of the app itself and into your phone’s settings to toggle which parts of your phone’s data and features the app can access. Turn off all unnecessary access to things like location, pictures, contacts, and anything else that isn’t absolutely necessary for the app to function. It’s also a good idea generally to turn off your device’s ad identifier setting that allows all apps to track you.
Finally, remember that privacy settings are subject to change. Sometimes, these privacy settings get stronger and more granular; sometimes not. 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.
Keep Separate Profiles Separate anchor link
For a lot of us, it’s critical to keep different account identities separate. This can apply to dating websites, professional profiles, anonymous accounts, and accounts in various communities.
Phone numbers and photos are two types of information to keep an eye on. Photos, in particular, can sneakily link accounts you intend to keep separate. This is a surprisingly common issue with dating sites and professional profiles.
If you want to maintain your anonymity or keep a certain account’s identity separate from others, use a photo or image that you don’t use anywhere else online.
Use Google’s reverse image search function to double-check if you're not sure where you've used a photo. Use a username checking service to scan across many apps at once to find out if you’ve used a username in the past elsewhere and forgotten about it. If you discover that one of these pieces of information is in a place you didn’t expect, don’t get scared or panic. Think in baby steps: instead of trying to wipe all information about you off the entire internet, focus on specific pieces of information, where they are, and what you can do about them.
Familiarize Yourself With Facebook Groups Settings anchor link
Facebook groups are places for social action, advocacy, and other potentially sensitive activities, but group settings can be confusing. Learn more about group privacy settings and work with group members to keep your Facebook groups private and secure.
Privacy Is A Team Sport anchor link
Don’t just change your own social media settings and behavior. Take the additional step of talking with your friends about the potentially sensitive data you reveal about each other online. Even if you don’t have a social media account, or even if you untag yourself from posts, friends can still unintentionally identify you, report your location, and make their connections to you public. Protecting privacy means not only taking care of ourselves, but also taking care of each other.