Social Networks and Privacy

June 17, 2010

I was on a panel today at CFP entitled “Privacy, Activism, & Social Networking: Protecting Privacy While Running a Media Campaign in 140 Characters or Less” with Tamar Gubins, Deborah Pierce, David Roth and  Danny O’Brien and I’ve been going round and round in my head  about my own position on privacy online and looking at social media from the viewpoint of an activist who may have a deeper need for personal privacy for safety reasons.

I’m a bit more pragmatic than some of my co-panelists on what privacy we can actually have in this day and age. After all, if you own a home it’s likely anyone who wants to can search online tax records and find your address and more personal information. If you carry a cell phone you can be located by anybody who can triangulate the signal. I’ve been an active user online for many years so I’m pretty easy to find. I’ve always stuck to the “if you don’t want it public don’t put it online” philosophy. This is especially true when you are on multiple networks. Think of your online conversations as an aggregate whole and not just one network at a time.

Unfortunately you don’t always control what’s online about you so I’m a big advocate of setting up alerts in Google and Social Mention among others to get a heads up when someone posts something about you online. New York, Philadelphia and several other city police departments are monitoring Twitter to watch for trouble before it starts. There are stories of activists using Twitter to transmit summaries from police scanners to let protesters know what actions police are taking too.

I’m trying to keep my focus in this case on activists and their issues with privacy online. You can’t mention activism and social media without James Karl Buck coming up. As an activist and a blogger he’s very visible online and his one word Tweet “Arrested” made headlines around the world. His tweet activated his social network and word spread quickly. Buck was released, but it was quite some time before his translator was also released–due in part at least–to Buck’s nonstop reporting on Twitter about his friend’s plight.

This is one example of social media being used to secure the privacy of an individual. Blogging and frequent updates on social networks can at least let people know where you are and if the communications stop or radically change, your friends will be paying attention.

Being visibility can keep you from “disappearing” in remote locations. On the other hand it can make you an easily visible target too. Social media can be used against you personally or against the cause you are fighting for. Telegraphing the location of a protest can increase the opposition at the same location.

So, how can an activist use social media to promote their cause and stay safe at the same time?

  • Set up those alerts for your name, the organization you’re working with and the opposition as well and monitor them frequently.
  • Get a P.O. box and use it for all of your online accounts (not just social media).
  • Set up an email account just for social media and don’t use it for anything private
  • Get a Google number that forwards to your cell phone for any time you have to put a phone number in a form online
  • Create an active social voice so you can transmit your ideas and keep in touch wherever you are
  • Make sure that network is active long before you need it and identify who is going to speak for you on your behalf if something happens
  • When using a public computer at a cafe etc, be sure to log off and clear the cache and delete cookies of the browser.
  • When you join a social network you don’t have to use your real birthday. Change the date across all your networks.
  • Use a service like Hushmail for secure email that is encrypted and virus scanned
  • Use a USB device like StealthSurfer so data is stored on your USB instead of the computer
  • I was told about this list of 8 things you shouldn’t give to social networking sites at CFP. Good stuff here too.

Bottom line? If you understand the internet and the privacy issues we face it’s your responsibility to help others see the issues too, advocate for privacy right sand then self police yourself. You have to take responsibility for what’s said out there about you and what you say about others that could put their privacy at risk.

If you don’t know about these issues start educating yourself. Start with CFP and some of the videos of sessions at this conference. Don’t put it out there if you’re not willing to stand behind it and watch what you say in aggregate form about yourself AND other people. Responsible use of social media is up to all of us.

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  1. Amen Sista!!! I’ve been preaching this same motto for ages, mostly to my friends when they ask “should I allow my 8, 9, 10, 12 year old  to get a facebook page? Is it safe, as long as they set it to private?”  Um, no, no, and certainly not!

    Thank you for the solid resource!


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