Saturday, June 19, 2010

What should I post online?

As a guy with a reputation of knowing something about computers, I often get hit up for tech advice from folks. Recently, a cousin of mine sent me a note asking about what sorts of things I post online and what I don't. Evidently he had been aware of a situation where kids used information from spokeo.com to commit crimes.

Personally, I think this is pretty interesting and a really good question. I say this because I think a lot of non-tech folks have not yet made the transition from "off line" to "online". Many technical people have already had to deal with this (often years ago), but many younger folks and/or non-technical people are just beginning to understand the implications of being truly "online". For example, here is a post from 7 years ago by some buffoon (that's me) who decided a to post an off topic friday afternoon 833r discussion. This will likely be available for a very very long time.

From my perspective, this is a pretty good example of how information wants to be free. That is, once you start putting information on the internet, you lose control of it. This means things on the internet (text, photos, videos) can be taken out of context and used for other purposes. In addition, depending on what you put out there, criminals might be able to gain enough information to do BAD things. In this particular situation (7 years ago) I was in our data center at one point and after I introduced myself this guy said "oh so YOU'RE Mike Mainguy". Evidently, because I was posting a lot of messages in user groups with my work email address, spammers where scanning the user groups and bombarding our domain with email to my account. At one point I believe I was told that my account was receiving more spam than any other account in the domain except for the CEO.

As another example, suppose I had posted on facebook that I was going on vacation for 2 weeks. This would mean that anybody who searched facebook for vacation, potentially would potentially be able to see it. This then would have an unintended side effect of telling every tech savvy criminal in the world that they would have a golden opportunity to break into my house. If prior to that, I had posted a facebook note about my new
plasma TV
, I'd have then put myself into a potentially vulnerable situation.

Don't get me wrong, the internet is bringing the world together and this is a wonderful thing. Social networking and other new applications enabling us to connect globally and interact across time and space in unimaginable ways. I obviously think that sharing information is a good thing and encourage everyone to get online and actively maintain an online presence. As with anything, however, there are unintended and potentially negative consequences of this. Folks who have newly minted online identities simply need to think about how they present themselves online.

Personally, before posting online, I typically ask myself the following questions:
  • "Would I be ashamed if my mom saw this?"
  • "Could a criminal use this information to do something bad?"
  • "Would a future employer potentially use this against me?"
If I answer "Yes" to any of these criteria, I typically don't post it. Obviously there are other considerations, but these three simple rules seem to serve me pretty well.

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