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. 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 cause some voters to lean Republican. It’s worth noting that the cited study was done by a black man.

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, the users are simply guilty by proxy. Consider the 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.

The Turn Your Tables Approach to Social Media

I’m sure your first reaction is that I’ve highlighted the most extreme examples, after all nothing hasn’t happened to me. This is hard 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 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?

I take what I’ve deemed the “Turn Your Tables” approach to social media. As you’ll see in the tips that follow, consumers of social media can currently enjoy all the benefits without volunteering anything private about themselves, which is what I encourage users to do. 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.

Because so many people are easily giving their information, 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.

Employers will often scan your social media presence so before you dismiss my suggestions consider that a wrong post or public comment could very well cost you a job.

#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 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 like 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 on Instagram.

#4. Think of Private Groups

Facebook does a poor job of allowing you 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. It takes effort but you can move your close friends into a group where only they can see what you are sharing. I feel this is the best compromise, unless you really want your co-workers, their friends, and friends of your friends to know about your diarrhea.

#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. This is why we have LinkedIn, which is essentially a social network for business professionals.

#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 risks making a joke. 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 job loss and receipt of the world’s scorn. Another example is Adam Smith, (yes that’s his real name), who published a YouTube video ranting about Chick-fil-A’s attitudes towards gays and lesbians. The video went viral, forcing Mr. Smith to quit his job.

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.

The solution is easy, just create a dummy account and to be safe a dummy email address to connect it to. If the court of public opinion is going to come down so hard on transparency, I can find no other short term solution than to be opaque.

#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

In my opinion we are willfully giving away valuable data about ourselves to giant tech behemoths absolutely 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. I take a binary approach where what I decide to share is for public consumption only, like this blog. With this approach, I’m the one who can see what’s been published which I consider to be the essence of freedom.

Does an opinion 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.