Can you be social and private simultaneously?

You keep on stalking me
Invading my privacy
Won’t you just let me be?
From Privacy by Michael Jackson

So now that everyone and their mother are on FaceBook it’s just swell how social we are. Keeping track of family and friends has never been easier. And how about those cute games? And that nice Mr. Zuckerberg is there to watch out for your privacy. He said so here and here. Or not. Okay – that last little foray into social networking fantasy land was cute, but unfortunately the the facts are somewhat more pedestrian and commercial [note to self: avoid writing blog entries while drinking brandy and listening to Porcupine Tree - coherency suffers]. So let’s start this over. Here’s the fundamental reality of social networking: You are not Facebook’s customer. You are the product they offer to their real customers – advertisers. [to paraphrase a tweet by @gollmann]. So what exactly are we supposed to do to protect our privacy? Because hey, social networking really IS cool. I mean you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. It turns out there are some things you can do to help preserve what little privacy you have left online. This entry in LifeHacker has some great ideas. Here is an abbreviated version of their list.

10. Run a Background Check on Yourself to Know What’s Out There
It takes only a few seconds to know what Google knows about you, but there are many, many other avenues into your past and present on the web. Want to know more about what a potential employer can know? Consumer action blog Consumerist has a nicely comprehensive list of background check tools to try out.

This one is a must. Not only is it informative it will scare the bejeezus out of you the first time you go to some of these sites. Who knows it might scare you enough to actually take some action. In this case fear is your friend.

9. Skip Incognito/Private Browsing and Really Leave No Trace
Private browsing modes might prevent your coworkers or roommates from seeing where you wander on the web, but you still leave plenty of traces for someone who knows where to look. Take the How-To Geek’s advice and really browse without leaving a trace.

That’s right, the vaunted “porn mode” of Google Chrome  – and now pretty much every other browser out there – might fool your spouse but it certainly won’t fool your teenager. Or those pesky e-Discovery folks. Sandbox it, portable-ize it and lose it forever. I’m not saying, I’m just saying…

8. Pick Better Security Questions
Some security questions and password recovery schemes offered by webapps are so bad, anyone with your casual acquaintance and a small amount of Google savvy could poke into your email whenever they felt like it. To get around weak security questions, use blogger danah boyd’s security question algorithm.

I prefer an easier solution here. I’ve mentioned many times before that I use a password manager program. I just keep track of the “security questions” and answers I provide – which are completely irrelevant nonsense. Example – Q: “Mother’s maiden name” A: “Chevrolet Belair”.

7. Set Up BitTorrent for Private Downloading
BitTorrent is a public commons of file sharing, and that means that all kinds of folks interested in, say, what your home IP address is, and what you’re downloading, can dig into it. With both a proxy and settings in your favorite torrent app, you can protect your privacy when downloading.

Yeah – I know you use it. Just be aware that you are most exposed when seeding. Sure if you don’t seed you’re just a freeloading leach. You can live with that.

6. Know Your Google Settings
If you’re anything like us, or most of our readers, you’ve got a lot of your life floating around in Google’s cloud-based apps. It pays, then, to know how to set what Google shares publicly about you, how much of your search history is being saved, and how to back up your data so you’ve always got your own copy. These are among the 10 Google settings you should know about that center on privacy and data retention, though it’s always a good idea to know the parameters of the spaces you share your data in.

Google is almost as bad as Facebook about “knowing what’s best for you”. Just ask yourself how Google makes so much money when you don’t pay them anything for those nifty free services. Then go change your settings. Now.

5. Know How to Travel Without Being Spied On
Just because some countries have widespread net access doesn’t mean it’s an open and private web. It’s often meant to deter dissidents in strong-handed regimes, but why take the chance of letting your web data fall into the wrong hands? One Lifehacker reader, wishing to remain anonymous and in a non-specific region, crafted a survival guide for traveling where privacy isn’t respected.

Lately the good old USA has been the most fascist place with respect to traveler’s privacy that I’ve been to. Full disk encryption – don’t leave home without it. Period. Most businesses, my employer included, mandate this nowadays.

4. Know Where You Stand With Facebook at a Glance
Facebook has promised “simplistic” privacy settings coming soon, but in the meantime, knowing exactly what you’ve offered to share or keep private is far from transparent. One very crafty hacker at ReclaimPrivacy has put together a settings-scanning bookmarklet that shows what you’re sharing beyond your social circle, and offers links and automatic fixes for those settings. Another coder, Ka-Ping Yee, offers a site that shows what the public web can see on Facebook, some of which you can then remove.

If you let things default then you are standing right where they want you. That’s probably not where you want to be.

3. Run Your Browser Through a Proxy
It’s not something you’ll want to do all the time, but once in a while, you might want to hide your online tracks. To do so, you can use the go-to web randomization tool,TOR, which has tools available for nearly every OS and browser.

I use TOR regularly when I need to check out unsavory or questionable corners of the web. For research purposes. Just remember that TOR is a double-edged sword – you are anonymized but you will also draw some very unhealthy attention from folks who realize that TOR users are doing something interesting.

2. Better Protect Your Mint.com or Other Financial Accounts
The thing that makes Mint.com such a convenient one-stop shop for financial data and budgeting also makes it a gold mine for anyone looking to learn more about you, or know which accounts they could try to jump into. Security professional Jason Owens provides some smart tips on better protecting your Mint.com account that can apply to any site where you manage your financials.

I’m not a big fan of online financial services. Call me old fashioned, but I just don’t trust those guys. Of course I don’t trust my bank either. And I hate my credit card companies. I find it’s safer to treat them like the enemy. More fun too. As a result my wife handles our finances.

1. Stay Available on Facebook Without Really Being In It
You might have considered quitting Facebook, but stopped short because it’s how a few far-flung friends and relatives stay in touch, or a place those without your email address can ping you. We can understand, and, luckily, have a halfway solution to recommend. Quit Facebook without really quitting.

This one is near an dear to my heart. Not only is Facebook a spectacular time sink, I really don’t like them pimping my info to their customers. So I decided to get creative. If you go to my Facebook profile you will see that I work for “The Universe at Large” as a “Transdimensional Protocol Facilitator” and that I’m a lot older than I seem, being born on 29-Feb-1904 [not bad for 106!] but then again time is a slippery thing when your in my line of work. Consider that I got my doctorate from the Ramses II Institute of Science when I was only 9 years old and went to high school at San Dimas High some 71 years later.

So here’s a shout out to all my classmates from Egypt in 1913 – it’s time to become who you really are on the internet. Then privacy isn’t such a big deal.