Last Updated May 18, 2010 12:18 PM EDT
Facebook recently changed its privacy settings and started pasting personal data all over the web, prompting some users to quit the site and many more to scrub their profiles of interesting bits. Google "accidentally" collected massive amounts of random personal data while its roving vans were supposed to be mapping streets. A waitress in North Carolina was fired after she used her status update to complain about a lousy tip. Oh... and your underwear is showing.
Just kidding about that last one, but these are clearly tough times for people who care about their privacy. These events should force us all to accept the truth: It's over. If you're using Facebook, Google, Twitter, a credit card, an online banking site, or any networked computer you've already got billions of bits of data floating everywhere. And that data is handled and massaged by thousands of clerks, coders, advertising consultants, and random wastepaper-basket emptiers. Even if everyone involved aims to "do no evil" as Google's motto claims, mistakes happen.
So it falls to you to try to make sure those mistakes -- or outright thefts -- don't hurt you. That doesn't mean going net free or even living off of the social networking grid; that's just too big a sacrifice for most people. But it does mean being more judicious about how your info is handled. And it also means choosing what to worry about and what not to worry about. Here are some recommendations:
Worry about your financial data. Use only the most trustworthy banking and financial management sites, and monitor your accounts regularly to make sure that there isn't any unauthorized access going on. CBS MoneyWatch has produced an excellent guide to protecting your financial identity.
Accept some lack of privacy for the rest of your data. It's the price you'll pay for online fun and convenience. Does it matter if everyone knows you're a soccer player or gardener or lover of old school hip hop music? Maybe not. But do you want to "like" particular products or companies that will use your click as an unpaid endorsement? If you suspect that publicizing your strong political opinions or your costly stored-at-home gold coin collection could be dangerous to your career or safety, keep them off of your social profiles.
Check your Facebook settings. A nifty new program called Privacy Scanner can check your Facebook settings to make sure they're set to the tightest levels. But don't get too comfortable. Facebook has shown it considers privacy settings a fleeting choice. Assume that anything you've ever posted on the site could eventually be made public.
Be business savvy. It's good to have some workplace friends and business colleagues as online friends. It makes you seem more like a well-rounded person and can help you build connections with people who might hire you or throw business your way in the future. But don't grouse about work or customers on Facebook or Twitter, and don't annoy your 'friends' by simply promoting your company with every post.
Limit your photo fun. People who aren't your friends can often see pictures of you. Even though you can restrict the distribution of pictures you post yourself through your privacy settings in Facebook, other people can post pictures of you that can become public. Furthermore, both Twitter and Facebook consider themselves owners of the photos you post. So skip the beer pong shots and reserve that pole-dancing episode for your boyfriend, and only then if you really trust him to never break up with you and post it himself.
Photo by Franco Bouly on Flickr.
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