10 Quick Tips to Prevent Oversharing and Protect Your Online Identity

Over the past 10 years there’s been a huge cultural shift in our attitudes toward how much personal information we share with the world. A decade ago we were wary of giving out our email address; today we allow sites to store our credit card and other highly sensitive information just to save a few minutes. We put our personal lives on display via Facebook and Twitter. We friend random strangers who, in all likelihood, we’ll never talk to again.

Why do people overshare? Recent research suggests oversharing rewards the brain in the same way as sex - whenever someone likes, shares, or comments on our posts it sends a rush of neurotransmitters to the pleasure centers in your brain. Neurophysiology aside, sharing is fun. People want to share their lives with other friends, and this kind of sharing is a great way to stay in touch with contacts that don’t live near you.

The problem is, every once in a while this oversharing of personal information creates a strong backlash wrought with negative consequences. For example, take Mat Honan, a columnist at Wired who had his identity hacked and his entire online presence brought down in a matter of an hour. Hackers could use his Twitter handle, @mat, for mischief. We’ve also heard the horror stories of families who talk about upcoming vacation plans on Facebook, only to return to an empty, burglarized house. Or maybe you know someone who has made the following mistake:

The moral of the story is it’s time to start watching what you share on your social networking profiles.

Here’s 10 tips to prevent oversharing and protect your personal information wherever it appears on the web.

1. Know Your Privacy Rights

We talk a lot about your online privacy rights, and that’s because we want to educate consumers on what to expect when they give a website their personal information. In this modern day and age it seems like we have to read a new privacy policy every day just to stay current with our favorite sites, and while it may seem tedious- you must educate yourself. Privacy is a buzzword for online marketers right now, and many “privacy charlatans” claim heightened privacy controls, yet still sell all your personal data to advertisers to make a few cents. When a site claims “privacy” read their TOS and educate yourself on exactly what they mean.

2. Create Private Groups and Lists

Most major social networks give users a way to list their contacts into groups and set individual permissions to each of those groups. This way you can group friends, family, coworkers, and business contacts into separate lists and share with each group individually. And in the case of the frustrated girl above, it may actually save you your job!

Facebook friend list privacy controls

Google+ circles privacy controls

3. Turn off Geolocation on Apps

This one is so important we’ve written an entire article on why turning off geolocation is a good idea. The short story is that many apps use geolocation services that give away a lot of public information about you and your physical status. For this reason Foursquare and Twitter can be used by burglars to find out when your house is empty and waiting to be robbed. Likewise these apps see incredibly high use among teens and young adults – a cyberstalker’s dream come true. The good news is geolocation is off by default on Twitter. For Foursquare just make sure you go to your account settings and select private check-ins as default.

4. Share With Real Friends and Contacts

How many friends do you have on Facebook? Now how many of those friends have you had a meaningful conversation with over the past year? No, prompted “Happy Birthdays” don’t count. If you’re anything like me, the number of real contacts is only a fraction of the total “friend” count. And yet we all still share every last update and detail about our lives with these digital strangers. So instead of blasting every minute of your life to Facebook and Twitter, think about who might see your updates and who your intended audience really is. Either create a private list for your close contacts, or sign up for Sgrouples which is an easy solution for managing your contacts in separate private groups.

5. Set Your Social Profiles to Non-Searchable

Even if social networking sites scrape your personal data to sell to advertisers, most will allow you to default your profile to private and non-indexable by Google. This tells Google’s web crawlers to skip over your profile so it can’t be added to their massive database. This also usually has the added effect of making your profiles private to people who don’t know you, which prevents total strangers from reading your intimate details. Lots of 3rd party sites also scrape personal information from publicly available pages found via Google, so keeping your profile out of the search engines will keep it out of these malicious sites as well.

6. Share Selectively

This may seem like a complete opposite to the point above, but sometimes it can help to selectively feed Google truthful, but limited content about yourself. Google is a fickle mistress that can be used to protect your identity by publishing SEO-optimized content that ranks in the top spots whenever someone looks you up, effectively suppressing negative websites that share too much about you. The beauty of this strategy is you can control exactly what information you give Google, so that nothing that shows up for your name has any damaging personal information attached. Make sure that you don’t give out your address, birthdate, or any other information that could be used to compromise your identity or reveal too much about your personal life.

7. Search Yourself

If you’ve had a history of oversharing or being active on any public network, do a Google search of your name in all its variations. You might also want to look your name up on on the top people search databases such as Intelius and Spokeo to see what information the internet scavengers have dug up on you. Once you’ve identified what information on you is available you can go about removing it at the source and stop oversharing on those networks.

8. Get a PO Box

This related more to protecting your address offline, but getting a PO box is a great way to keep your specific home location away from prying eyes. Here’s everything you need to know about getting your own PO box set up to protect your identity.

9. Be Careful About Linking Social Apps

These days it’s not uncommon to have 5-10 3rd party apps linked to your Twitter and/or Facebook profiles. These apps provide extra functionality, and in many cases they also have authority to post to your social media accounts. The overwhelming majority of these automated posts are innocent, but it only takes one single mis-post to ruin your reputation online. Whenever you add a 3rd party app to one of your social media accounts, make sure to check the permissions and privacy settings and understand exactly what you allow the 3rd party app to post under your name.

You can check your app settings on Facebook in the privacy settings tabs on the upper right hand corner of your profile. From there click on “Ads, Apps, and Websites.” For Twitter, go to “Settings” and find the “Apps” tab toward the bottom of the list.

10. Turn on Google 2-Factor Authentication

This last one isn’t so much about oversharing, but a useful security tool that can protect your identity if you accidentally overshare a critical piece of information. In case you didn’t get a chance to read Mat Honan’s identity theft escapade linked earlier in the article, here’s the gist…Hackers were able to pretend to be Mat to get the last 4 digits of a credit card he had on file. They then used that information to access other accounts of his, including his Apple account, Gmail, and ultimately Twitter. Mat said it himself:

 Had I used two-factor authentication for my Google account, it’s possible that none of this would have happened…

Here’s the official video from Google’s own Matt Cutts on why 2-factor authentication can save your identity:

So there you have it! 10 ways to stop oversharing, protect your online reputation, and guard your personal information. Of course if you’re looking for a safe, secure network to connect with your real-life friends, then sign up for a free account at Sgrouples and stop the worry.


Images from: http://www.dr4ward.com/dr4ward/2011/06/have-you-ever-posted-anything-online-about-yourself-that-you-regretted-june-2011-study-infographic.html, http://iamhilarious.com/omg-i-hate-my-job/, http://twentytwowords.com/2011/03/22/a-child-talks-to-her-imaginary-friend-about-her-moms-imaginary-friends/