Why Your Privacy Matters More Than Ever

The rapid growth and development of social media brought back memories of my time as a student in East Berlin. During my studies there, I was first introduced to the Stasi and the techniques they employed to spy and exploit their own citizens.

I’m seeing a similar pattern with social media, not exactly the same, yet common themes are apparent. Consider the fact that some have already lost their jobs, or have had their reputations permanently damaged for telling jokes, sharing research or simply voicing a counter narrative opinion on social media (examples to follow). These were the same crimes of thought that could get one into trouble in former East Germany and the Soviet Union.

Kevin Hart, for example, was set to host the 2019 Oscars until “the mob” dug into his decade old Twitter feed, unearthing a joke from 2010 that was deemed homophobic. Then there’s the case of David Shor, who was fired for the crime of tweeting a study which found that violent protests in an election year causes some voters to lean more Republican than Democrat.

In some cases, the court of public opinion opts to punish next of kin or associates of the so called “thought criminals.” Consider the Serbian soccer player Aleksandar Katai who was let go from the LA Galaxy soccer club after some controversial social media posts by his wife surfaced.

In extreme cases, one is simply guilty by proxy. The best example of this being the California man who was recently fired from his job after a Twitter user falsely accused him of so called white supremacist hand gestures. The accuser deleted the Tweets and to my knowledge suffered no penalties and apparently no remorse for ruining someone’s life.

My Solution to Fighting Back: The Turn Your Tables Approach to Social Media

I’m sure your first reaction to my examples is that I’ve highlighted the most extreme situations, and since nothing has happened in your personal life, you are safe. Such a statement is difficult to judge. When your entire, unfiltered life is available on Facebook or Twitter, it’s impossible to tell what others perceive of you or how much those invincible puppeteers behind the curtains know about you. Do you really think when you delete a photo on Facebook that it’s gone forever? Is it that much of a stretch to imagine that individuals or even teams have full access to everything you’ve ever said or done on a platform like Facebook or Twitter? Finally, can you name a single individual who represents your city or state at Facebook and is responsible for protecting your privacy? Of course not, it’s why I don’t trust these platforms with my personal information and I’d encourage you to consider evaluating your social media habits.

Social media isn’t going away, which is why I don’t advocate for removing your account, rather I take what I’ve deemed the “Turn Your Tables” approach to social media. This approach puts the rights of privacy back in the hands of consumers, namely by withholding it. As you’ll see in the tips that follow, consumers of social media can currently enjoy all the benefits of the medium without volunteering anything private about themselves. If everyone were to reduce their digital footprint on social media just a little bit, the providers would be forced to reckon with their flagrant privacy violations as the power would be back in the hands of the consumer.

#1. Don’t Volunteer Any of Your Personal Information on Social Media

If you are looking to protect your online privacy on social media, you’ll notice that Facebook and other applications want you to tell them as much about yourself as possible. It may feel good to have a “completed” profile but all you are doing is making yourself an easy target for annoying ads while giving up your personal privacy in the process.

Because so many people are easily giving their information on social media sites, you currently suffer no penalty for volunteering nothing. You can extend this as far as you want. You don’t need to use your real name or even your own photo. You can also share as little as you want about yourself. The beauty is that you still can enjoy all the benefits of the platform but have given up nothing in exchange. I find this is a better compromise than taking yourself off the platform completely.

Before you dismiss my suggestion as too radical, consider that employers will often scan your social media presence before an interview. It’s important to remember that we all carry biases so you may be disqualified for simply sharing an opinion or viewpoint that the hiring agent disagrees with, something not too uncommon in an increasingly polarized society.

#2. Review Public Settings on all Social Media Platforms

Unless you are trying to market yourself as a public personality, which should be a different account than your personal one, I strongly recommend sharing nothing public about yourself on Facebook. This one tip is the best way to protect your personal information. There are only disadvantages for literally anyone in the world to know private information about yourself such as your physical location, place of employment, or areas you’ve traveled to.

#3. Don’t Publish Your Travel Plans on Social Media Until You Come Back!

In the old days, people used to drop off their travel photographs to the photo lab for development after the vacation. I make the same suggestion here, don’t share your travel itinerary, there is no benefit to doing this, and put your travel photos after the event. People will still know you traveled.

I’m old school in the sense that I’d rather enjoy the trip for what it’s worth than document every moment. Of course you want to take photos, it’s normal but removing the burden of documenting everything for the sake of Facebook friends should make the trip more enjoyable. I actually began enjoying my travels after I stopped posting every moment on Instagram, instead making those posts while I waited for my return flight in the airport.

#4. Think of Private Groups & Use Cloud Storage for Sharing Sensitive Information

Facebook does a poor job of allowing users to easily categorize your “friends.” This is my biggest dissatisfaction with the platform because there are some things I only want to share with those close to me. Of course this runs in direct opposition with their business model which is for all users to connect as much as possible. I finally gave up on this approach since the platform is clunky to use and ultimately I don’t trust it. I also realized that much of the information I wanted to share was just for a few family members. Now I just put those images in cloud storage and share the links with family.

With the above in mind, a compromise is to create a private group with your friends. I’d still recommend following my guidelines, especially tip #7, however, at least with a group you have a bit more freedom to express yourself than the incredibly wide net that is a shared post on Facebook.

#5. LinkedIn is For Co-Workers, Not Facebook

We are ultimately the ones to judge how close we should get to our co-workers. It’s rare to work in the same place for a long time these days which is why I don’t think it is wise to allow co-workers into your private life, especially if you are new in the company.

Keep in mind that once your privacy is lost, you cannot get it back which is why you should be very careful about allowing your co-workers into your private life. It’s also human nature to gossip, another reason to reject friend requests which are usually made purely for nosy reasons and not to “get to know you.” LinkedIn was created for this purpose anyway, so consider to connecting with colleagues there but not on Facebook.

#6. Create a Fake Account for Any Type of Controversial Comments / Opinions

Let’s consider the case of Justine Sacco to see an extreme case of what happens when someone tries to make a joke on social media. Before her flight to South Africa took off, Ms.Sacco tweeted the following message: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Her attempt at a joke, albeit a tasteless one, caused her to lose her job as well as gain the scorn of the world. The joke was absolutely in poor taste, yet for one simple tweet her life has been ruined, which is why I think we shouldn’t underestimate the power social media has in our lives.

Another example is Adam Smith, (yes that’s his real name), who published a YouTube video ranting to a drive thru employee about Chick-Fil-A’s attitudes towards gays and lesbians. The video went viral, forcing Mr. Smith to quit his job and relocate.

Naturally these are sensational examples, it’s why they make the news in the first place. Unfortunately, the cost/benefit of sharing opinions on social media is completely out of whack as even certain celebrities and public figures are retroactively being hunted down for opinions shared decades ago as I pointed out earlier.

My solution is to never post or share any controversial opinion using your real name unless you can die on that sword. If you can’t, then create a dummy account and use that for commenting. Sadly, this is already what’s happening and I think only contributes to a breakdown in dialogue in our country yet I can see no way around this in the near term.

#7. Self Censor, Even with Your Friends

Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the Parkland Shootings is a known conservative gun right’s activist. His position on guns, especially in light of the shooting he survived, has made him a popular target in media circles. Having applied to Harvard last year and initially accepted, he was later publicly ousted by one of his so-called friends who leaked private Skype and Google doc comments that that were written in private group. The comments were tasteless of course, but the world is seriously walking around like the Flanders children as if they never once in their private lives made a joke that others would be hurt by or deemed offensive if it were heard in public.

It’s important to emphasize that comments by Kashuv were made in private, it wasn’t a Tweet or even a public Facebook post. Nevertheless, it only took a jealous friend and a hypercritical media landscape to deny him access to one of America’s most prestigious schools, thereby changing the course of his life. If you think the same couldn’t happen to yourself or your teenage children, that would be quite a naive assumption. The lesson here is that once children are raised on technology they must be taught to self censor lest they be caught on the wrong side of the fence as was the case with Kashuv.

Final Thoughts on Privacy and Social Media

It’s my standpoint that we as a society are willfully giving away extremely sensitive data about ourselves to giant tech behemoths for free. I feel no close bond or ties to these massive platforms which is why I have no qualms restricting as much about myself as I choose.

Personally, I take a binary approach when it comes to what I share on the Internet. Basically anything I write on this blog or upload to my YouTube channel I think about carefully; once it’s published then it is available for the public. What I don’t like about platforms like Facebook is that even though my opinion or comment may be shared only with Friends, it can often reach further, so what may be considered private is not. The company itself is so opaque I chose to share very little.

Does holding an opinion about social media that many would disagree with make me a control freak? Sure, but with our personal lives, privacy, and data I would argue that we should all be control freaks! This is not to mention the additional benefit in that for my own life, I’ve felt much better about myself, experienced far less negative emotions and have found increased productivity in the workplace and hobbies.