Last fall, I shared 7 tips for maintaining your safety online. That post was really well-received and made its way onto BlogHer. Because this has become a topic I’ve fixated on over the last year as my own work has become much more public online, I thought it’d be worth revisiting and offering up another series of easy-to-implement things you can do to protect your privacy and safety online.
First and foremost, I need to recommend a book.
Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy was recommended to me by numerous people and I’m really glad I bought it. Swapna talked about it over on Panels, and I echo her sentiments: this is a book that anyone who does work on the internet or invests in social media on the internet needs to read. While it’s geared toward women, anyone can walk away with really valuable tips and tricks. There’s a privacy checklist in here that I plan on revisiting on a regular basis to ensure that things don’t slip under my radar. The checklist, as well as other tools and resources, are available on Blue’s tumblr, too.
Many of the following tips, tricks, and tools I am going to recommend came up as I worked through her book. I discovered and tried a lot of these on my own with solid results, based on what Blue suggested checking for. In other words, she suggested paying attention to what you’re allowing on your Twitter timeline, and I tried out a handful of tools to see what worked best for me and my level of comfort. So, your mileage may vary, depending on your needs, but these were all good bets for me.
You are absolutely welcome to share this, print it, whatever you want. I appreciate credit, but it’s not required. These are simple things you can spend 10 minutes doing and I highly recommend not only doing them for yourself, but recommending these things to others looking for help being more private and safe online.
A Quick & Dirty Primer to Safety and Privacy Online
- Get Out of People Finder Websites: Opt out of things like Spokeo. Search ALL of your names and nicknames, including maiden names or full names if you go by initials, and pull them all out. Look up all of the places you’ve lived before and cross check. You can opt out of Spokeo here: http://www.spokeo.com/opt_out/new. Do this with as many people finder sites as possible. I found myself listed under multiple states, under multiple names, and I pulled it all off. The process takes about a day, but then it’s gone.
- Make a Burner Phone Number to Give Out: Created a Google Voice phone number. This is free. You can forward it to your real phone. Perhaps you want to pick a number no where near where you live. I made one for a large metropolitan area and it will forward to my real phone. I’m comfortable sharing this one online. Bonus: doing this will save you from those inane sites or apps which require a phone number or which use your phone number for innumerable data mining reasons.
- Make a Burner Email To Give Out: Set up a burner email account. You can forward it to your real inbox. I created burner emails for Kimberly and I to have individually through our domain, but we share an inbox for Stacked, too. Anything worthy of our real email addresses we’ll reply to from them. This makes me feel good giving out my email on social media, to enter contests, to sign up for anything. Basically, anyone you don’t want having your direct line, give them this.
- Your Address: Get a PO Box. I noted this last year, but it’s become incredibly worthwhile this year, as it’s cheap and let me give an address out to people and places without ever feeling insecure. PO Boxes are tax deductible if used for business (freelance writing counts!). Check with your post office for forwarding options, as sometimes you can set up a PO box to come to your home. Also, you can, I believe, set up a PO box in a town you don’t live in.
- Check Who Has Your Address: If you own a domain, especially through a place like GoDaddy, your address is out there. A quick Google search for me turned up all of my information very publicly. Change the WHOIS info for domains registered to you to include as little identifying info as possible — this is where a burner phone number, a burner email, and a PO Box are invaluable. Do the same thing with TinyLetter (which will publish the address you enter at the bottom of each email, so make sure it’s your PO Box), MailChimp, or anything else that requires a public-facing mailing address. GoDaddy will let you pay a fee to keep this information totally private, too, if that’s preferable.
- Deep Dive On Google/Yahoo/Other Search Engines: Google your phone number, address, date of birth, social security number, screen names, logins, and email address — with multiple variations. See where these things are and ask for them to be removed where possible. If you can, delete as many comments on blogs or websites with that information as possible. In the earlier days of blogging, many required an email address in the comments to be entered into contests. Go back and delete those comments. You’ll also want to do a Google image search of these same bits of personal information and remove anything you don’t like or aren’t comfortable with people having. Delete any social media profiles you no longer use or want available, too. You’d be surprised what pops up.
- Create Multiple User Names: If you have accounts around on different sites or social media and you want to keep some things private/unfindable, have multiple user names. My Etsy user name, for example, has nothing to do with my name or the user name catagator, which I use in most places. I don’t want people finding me on there because it’s none of their business what I’m buying or looking at. You don’t owe people your information, even if you love them and trust them. Sometimes it’s your business and yours alone.
- Unsubscribe From Email Lists: The best thing I did for myself over the last year or so was unsubscribe from every pesky email list I don’t want to be part of. Why do I need eight emails a week from my eye car provider? Why do I need eight emails a day from B&N telling me about deals? Why am I on some publisher’s email list that I don’t care about? Unsubscribe when anything pops into your inbox you don’t want or don’t care about shows up. Those companies are profiting by having your information and giving you little or nothing in return. After doing this, I no longer struggle with my inbox. I used to wake up in the morning to 40 or 50 emails, but now, I wake up to 4 or 5 at most, and they’re almost always things I need to take care of or from people I want to talk with. If you can’t part with some of these lists, use your burner account for them!
- Tape Over Your Computer Camera: This one is straight from Blue’s book. She has good reasoning behind this, as cameras can be hacked quite easily. If you need to use your computer’s camera, you can simply untape it. I used a small piece of a post-it note and taped over that, which will keep the lens from getting sticky.
- Use A Blocking Tool on Twitter: Go beyond Twitter’s blocking. Use a tool like BlockTogether, which lets you create block lists and share them with other people. This is useful if, for example, you blog with many people and you all deal with spam periodically. You can share the block lists and save time. This is free. You can also use it to set up parameters on blocking — so you can have young Twitter accounts blocked, those who have Tweeted fewer than X-times, etc. You can go through and unblock anyone who falls into these block parameters because sometimes you accidentally block someone who you don’t mean to block.
- Delete Old Tweets: There’s a great tool out there called Tweet Deleter which you can use to bulk delete your Tweets. You pay $15 a month, but you can cancel after one month if you do this smartly. When you pay the $15, you’ll upload your Twitter archive, and you can search it, choosing tweets to block. You can delete entire months or entire years — don’t want people to find your Tweets from 2009? Delete them all. Do a search for any info you don’t want public, like emails, town names, family member info, etc. This does auto-renew, so remember to cancel the service when you feel comfortable.
- Remove Fake Followers: Neat thing I learned, and by neat, I mean, annoying — you can get follow spammed on Twitter. Someone can pay to have hundreds or thousands of fake Twitter accounts follow you; this looks fishy on Twitter’s end, and when they think you’re paying for followers, they will block your account. I recommend seeking out and blocking fake accounts following you on Twitter. Pay $15 for https://fakers.statuspeople.com/ to delete all of the fake followers you have. This doesn’t auto-renew, so keep it just for a month.
- Check Privacy Settings Everywhere: Go through all of your social media accounts and make things private where you can and completely delete the apps from which you can’t rid yourself of public-facing information you don’t want public. You don’t NEED LinkedIn if you don’t want it. Same with Pinterest or any other social media account. Check Twitter’s privacy settings to see what apps have access to your account and make sure you’re okay with what they have access to. Revoke as needed. I ended up deleting LinkedIn because it was spam most of the time, but more importantly, it did not let me delete some information I REALLY wanted deleted. So, I just got rid of the whole thing. If I need it again in the future, I’ll make a new one.
- Make Yourself Unsearchable On Facebook and Check Facebook Privacy Settings Everywhere: Change your Facebook name if you don’t want to be searchable. You need a real name, but you can shorten your real name or use a first and middle name only. To adjust your Facebook privacy settings, go to the dropdown menu on the upper-right corner. Select “privacy.” Under “Who can see my future posts?” select Friends or Friends Except Aquaintances. Next to “Review all your posts and things you’re tagged in,” select “Use Activity Log” and remove any posts where you’re tagged and don’t want to be. Under “limit the audience for posts you’ve shared…” select Limit Past Posts so your past posts are no longer public. Go through each other setting and select the option best for you, and check back in once per quarter because FB’s privacy settings change often.
- Don’t Be Location-Enabled: Turn off ALL location-enabled options in all social media. If you don’t care, someone you may be with might care. Do it for their privacy if not your own. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other places do this for you — take away their ability to know where you are. I keep nothing on location except one private account for me which tracks my walking (and which I would never share with anyone, even people I know and love).
- Audit Your Social Media Photos and Locations: Go back through your Instagram feed and remove any pictures that give clues to where you live (neighborhood signs, street signs, your mailbox, house number, etc.) or that include the license plate on your car. You’ll be surprised how often your car sneaks into pictures you’re trying to take of snow or your kids playing outside. *This tip came from someone else and isn’t mine, but it’s fitting with the ones above, so I’m leaving it!
Any other tips you’d add to these or the ones linked to in the post from last year? I’d love to hear them and share them with readers who are interested.
One of the things Violet Blue says over and over in her book and I want to reiterate here is: once you start doing this, you might find yourself overwhelmed and freaked out. This isn’t bad — it means you now know what you can do to make it stop, right now.