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Look before you 'like': The unseen perils of being friendly on Facebook

Social media seems to be all about spreading the love. If you like something, you show it by clicking the 'like' button, no questions asked. For most people, it stops there – but not for Facebook. 

Everything you do online gets noticed by someone, and even the most minor of digital movements can have repercussions you aren't aware of. A perfect example of this is the "like" feature of Facebook. It seems harmless enough, but a recent study demonstrated that there are unseen depths to it that you might not know about. Every "like" is a new piece of data that can be strung together with the rest of your online information, creating a picture of you that is scarily accurate. 

A USA Today story recently examined a study done by researchers from the University of Cambridge that tallied up the "likes" and used algorithms to predict user behavior. The results were chilling for anyone concerned about social media privacy: by connecting the dots on Facebook, the study was able to correctly guess the race, gender, religion and even the sexual orientation of users in an overwhelming majority of cases. This should serve as a reminder for those who think they have no risk of social media exposure.

Of course, there are those who deliberately use Facebook as a marketing tool to get noticed, promote products, and raise awareness about their profile or brand. But whether you like it or not, every time you browse, you're leaving fingerprints that can be detected and used to make judgments about you that are getting increasingly precise. And depending on who's doing the judging, you could get targeted with unwanted ads – or worse.

It's unrealistic (and perhaps impossible) to close the Pandora's Box that is Facebook completely, now that it has become a part of so many of our lives. It's more practical to figure out ways to work with the monster than against it, and online reputation management can help you figure out the best methods of limiting your individual vulnerability before someone unsavory figures you out.     

John Sileo is a social media expert and keynote speaker on privacy, identity and digital reputation protection. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent media appearances on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.

Maintaining Privacy While Living in a Digital Fishbowl

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“When you put something out there, anyone can see it – from a future job interviewer to an internet creep.”

This was what the title character on the ABC drama “Castle” said to his daughter in a recent episode upon discovering a video blog in which she was sharing personal details about her life. Richard Castle, played by actor Nathan Fillion, was distraught over his 18-year-old daughter’s over-sharing, worried that any number of miscreants could use details she posts online to do her harm.

When he explained this to her and added that he didn’t want something she posted on a whim to haunt her years later, she showed a fractured appreciation of the topic of online privacy.

“My generation grew up in a digital fishbowl,” she said. “No matter how careful we are stuff will get out there. Friends will tag me in photos, inevitably doing something stupid. Why should that define me?”

Yes, she did indeed grow up in a digital fishbowl. However, acknowledging that fact and then throwing her hands in the air and saying there’s nothing she can do about it is a cop out. There are a number of things one can do to safeguard their digital reputation. For starters, read the terms and conditions of online services and websites you use and make sure you spend enough time customizing the privacy settings (60 minutes per site is a good rule of thumb).

While Castle’s mother points out that he was wild in his day, he correctly responds that his day is not today. There was no Facebook or Twitter 20 years ago. Both older and younger generations must accept responsibility for their online reputation management.

For parents, it’s about protecting their children. But, for business owners, it’s about safeguarding an enterprise they’ve worked their whole lives to build. Employees are a reflection on the companies they work for, and when their digital reputations are tarnished, that can and likely will come back to haunt the business.

When we put something out there on the internet, it’s out there. Putting the genie back in the bottle afterward is no simple task.

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.

A lesson in digital reputation management from zombies

Your old web accounts are like digital zombies, stalking you from the shadows. Take a second to think back to all the websites, online services, social media platforms and other accounts you have signed up for over the years.

How many of the ones you no longer bother with have you completely deactivated rather than just ignored like muscles slowly atrophying? Here’s a scary lesson in online reputation management.

A recent PC World article explores the topic of “zombie accounts” and how we so often just stop using them and forget they are there, never actually shutting them down for good. Which means they are still out there.The article even cites one of the head honchos at Symantec Security Response who claims that while these zombie accounts can be hacked, they don’t necessarily present any greater risk than your active ones do. Survey says … wrong.

These forgotten accounts present an even greater danger – just one that few people are aware of. When the Facebook page you check every single day gets hijacked, you’ll likely notice pretty quickly, although it takes very little time to do very real damage. But, with a long-forgotten online account that you haven’t even looked at in five years, how are you going to know when someone else decides to use it to steal your identity or damage your digital reputation?

If you’re a business owner and prospective clients are surfing the Web to learn more about you, are you confident you know exactly what they’ll find? Are you really sure that no one has taken a website profile you set up then stopped using and turned it against you? Some people do this for fun, others to make money, but the bottom line is they do it.

Now is a good time to do a personal Web history audit. Make a list of all the sites and services you may have signed up with over the last several years that you no longer use and start deactivating them – officially. Your online reputation could depend on it.

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.

CES panel highlights social media privacy and the dangers of ignoring the issue

"We live in public."

This was a statement made by a 22-year-old individual participating in a panel discussion about Generation Y and online privacy at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) currently taking place in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Slamming your head in a car door hurts, so we don't do it. Exposing dangerous amounts of our private information also hurts, but because we don't feel the pain instantaneously, we tend to ignore it all together. Our risk attention span is about 30 seconds, or about as long as it takes to read a 140-character tweet.

The CES panel was composed of six young adults between the ages of 18 and 28. Each individual made some very important points about social media exposure and their use of the Web.

"I don't believe that if I were to turn [my social networks] off that people wouldn't be able to get my info. It's already out there," said Tess, one of the Gen Y-ers.

Yes! That is exactly right. Squeezing your eyes shut as a child didn't make the monsters go away because they were never there in the first place. Closing your eyes as an adult doesn't undo countless sharing mistakes made over a matter of years on the Web, because those are very much in the real world.

Another participant said that she uses Facebook's security setting that allows her to approve any photo, status update or check-in that she is tagged in, because she correctly surmised that such information could send employers and colleagues the wrong message about her. This is a critical part of online reputation management that far too few people utilize.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, as a CNET recap of the panel points out, the entire group agreed that Facebook's privacy controls are a pain to locate and manage. The very unfortunate byproduct of this fact is that millions of people just shrug their shoulders and assume that they can ignore the issue because no one would want to target them for identity theft or do anything that might hurt their reputation.

Wrong! And that's a mistake that can cost you dearly.

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.

No free lunches online, but plenty of threats to privacy

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Milton Friedman said it in the 70s and my slightly skeptical and generally accurate Italian father has told me that for at least as long. Friedman can have the credit for the saying, but Dad gets credit for the applying.

Since the beginning of the Internet, we have been told that we are getting free stuff (songs, articles, videos, entertainment, gigabytes of storage, social connections, etc.). In reality, we have just been paying with a different currency-our private information. Think about it, you have given Facebook your birthdate, hometown, current town, religion, sexual preference, marital status and a daily update of what you like, what you do and who you know. As Javier David points out in a piece for CNBC in a piece about online privacy, we, as consumers, have become slaves to what we were told was free, but in reality comes with massive payments in a very personal and powerful currency.

In other words, everything that is "free" on the internet has a subtle but powerful price tag.

This is something to think about the next time you sign up for a "free" online service or application, like Facebook or Google+. These companies make their money by offering advertisers targeted marketing opportunities, and they are able to offer those opportunities by gathering the personal information that we so readily supply them with in the form of status updates, tagged photos, location check-ins, "likes" and more.

Luckily, you and I are beginning to understand that controlling how our data is disseminated online means that we must be vigilant about reading and understanding the privacy settings and terms and conditions on these websites. Unfortunately, the average consumer (who is not reading articles on this topic like you are) is not so privacy savvy.

Everything from protecting yourself from identity theft to online reputation management hinges on your willingness to accept the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch – at least not on the internet. The best place to start is by knowing exactly what a company can and will do with your personal information if you choose to use their services.

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.

Online reputation management and your future

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill last week prohibiting employers and educational institutions in the state from asking applicants and students for passwords to their email and other online accounts, including social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

"Cyber security is important to the reinvention of Michigan, and protecting the private internet accounts of residents is a part of that," Snyder said in a press statement. "Potential employees and students should be judged on their skills and abilities, not private online activity."

But, how private is "private online activity?" The sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was enraged recently when a picture she posted to the social media site was sent out to millions of people via Twitter by another user.

It is true that employers should not be able to ask for passwords to personal online accounts, but they don't need your password to see what you're doing on Facebook. Once it goes online, "private" unfortunately becomes a relative term. And in today's world, your online reputation can make or break your chances at a new job or getting into the school you want.

There are steps one can take, starting with becoming familiar with the privacy settings of every Web-based service – social media or otherwise – that you use. Knowing exactly what is happening or could happen with content you post on the internet is a good first step.

However, online reputation management goes beyond that. It's also about understanding what other people can do with pictures, posts and other items that you put on the Web, as well as what they can publish that involves you, such as photos or status updates you're tagged in. Do your friends have the same strict privacy settings enabled as you do? If not, you could be at risk.

Employers are looking at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more when making hiring decisions. Have you made decisions of your own that will hurt your chances at future success?

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.