By Elizabeth Wasserman
Social networks are not just for teenagers anymore. The popular web sites that let you connect with people who have shared interests or activities, are now helping adults like Sheilah Etheridge turn up business leads from her home-based accounting and consulting firm in Anchorage, Alaska. But Etheridge will only use select social networking sites because she worries about the privacy of her personal information.
"Everything we post on the web is obviously out there for all the world to see and it's out there for eternity," says Etheridge, a 50-year-old mother of two grown children, ages 22 and 26. She favors networking on LinkedIn because the site pledges not to share her information with anyone other than her "connections." "The thing that people need to understand is that you're not only protecting your own privacy but protecting your friends' privacy, as well."
Some members of the popular social networking site Facebook were in for a rude awakening about privacy as they prepared for the holidays last November. Facebook had launched a new advertising program called Beacon with its retail partners. As a result, details of some members' private online purchases showed up unbeknownst to them on the Facebook pages of their friends and family members -- spilling the beans about holiday gifts in some cases and embarrassing purchasers. After thousands of Facebook members protested, the company allowed members to "opt out" and keep their purchase information private.
The incident, however, underscored the privacy concerns of social networkers. As adults take up social networking, it's important to be aware of potential privacy risks to the information that is posted for all to see. Below are top privacy issues that adults -- as well as teens -- need to take into account before posting information (or pictures or video) on the most popular social networks.
Privacy Threat No. 1: Strangers seeing your personal data
The Risk: Having sensitive -- or just embarrassing -- information fall into the hands of identity thieves, prospective employers, college recruiters or even potential mates.
How to protect yourself: Be careful about the information you choose to post on social networks because you don't always know who is viewing it. "People should assume the content they put online is going to be public," says Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst for Forrester Research who reports on social networking and online communities. That means you should use common sense before you publish sensitive information, such as your birth date, your physical address or your employer.
This includes photos, too. "People don't always look closely at what's in the photos that they upload," says Paul Gillin, author of the upcoming book about social networks, Secrets of Social Media Marketing. "Maybe it's a photo of them doing something they don't want other people to know about."
Privacy Threat No. 2: People seeing what you're doing
The Risk: Stalkers, jealous spouses or suspicious employers keeping an eye on your every move.
How to protect yourself: Turn on privacy settings to select "who" can see "what" in your profile. Many photos and entries of information are time-stamped, meaning that the date and time you post it is recorded and shared with your network of friends or connections. This means your boss may be able to find how much time you spent on Facebook while at work. Or your significant other might see photos you posted frolicking in Miami while you were supposed to be on a business-only trip. Some sites, such as LinkedIn, have adopted privacy policies to never share your information with other users without your consent.
Take advantage of privacy settings on other sites such as Facebook and MySpace. These settings can allow you to limit time stamping, who can view your information, who can see your birth date, or who gets notification when you add friends or applications, also known as web widgets.
Privacy Threat No. 3: Personal data used for marketing
The Risk: Your private data may be used for commercial reasons to target you with online advertising -- and maybe even junk mail -- based on your preferences and activities.
How to protect yourself: Read the fine print before you sign up for any service. Most social networking sites are for-profit companies, and advertising keeps membership free. "The purpose behind social networking sites is supposed to be to enable you to connect with friends and colleagues and do these networking activities," says John Verdi, staff attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a non-profit privacy advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "What they don't say is that ‘our real purpose is to mine your data and sell it to the highest bidder.'"
Privacy Threat No. 4: Difficulty deleting information
The Risk: Being haunted by your old social network posts that never die.
How to protect yourself: Make sure you understand the policies of social networking sites when it comes to deleting your personal information or profile content. For example, there was some controversy with Facebook over users not being able to completely delete their profiles. Facebook says it wanted to store the information in case someone wanted to revive their profile, but has caved in under pressure from users to allow for easier deleting. MySpace and LinkedIn will allow users to delete their profiles. Understand, however, that postings you sent to other users, or content friends copied off your profile or blog, can remain online for eternity. "There are going to be remnants or ghosts," Owyang says. "Assume that everything you put online is forever."
Etheridge has one other helpful tip before you put yourself out there on a specific social network: "Speak to other users you know and trust before joining some sites." In other words, network a bit before you sign up for a network so you can learn more about how the site protects your info -- or doesn't.
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