Privacy on the Internet

Can you blog post on safety on internet, facebook and privacy, etc?

 

To an extent, no, I can’t. I don’t know very much about what to do about privacy and safety on the internet.  

I don’t know very much about that, because no one knows very much about that, yet.

What I do know is that some of the rules people say to follow are wrong, and aren’t actually followed by anyone. They’re complicated, and somewhat separate, so I’m going to talk about privacy first.

People will tell you that you things like this about privacy:

  • Never put anything personal on Facebook
  • Don’t have conversations on Twitter
  • You shouldn’t have a blog unless it’s professional and polished and uncontroversial.
  • Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want on the cover of the New York Times

And it’s true that if you don’t do any of these things, you probably won’t have internet-related privacy problems. But that doesn’t make this good advice – this advice mostly boils down to “never use the Internet for anything but reading things and sending trivial emails”. And that is isolating; it means cutting yourself off from conversations that happen on the internet. And, more and more, it means cutting yourself off from a good percentage of worthwhile conversations that happen *anywhere*. That’s not actually a good idea.

Advice that amounts to never use the internet is kind of like saying that if you want to avoid car crashes, you should never get into a car. That’s true, but useless.

I don’t know a good solution to this. No one does, not yet.

Here are some things I think I do know about privacy

  • Pseudonyms can provide a measure of privacy by preventing things from coming up when someone googles your name. This is good enough for many purposes.
  • Pseudonyms are risky because they can make you feel safer than you really are. They’re not very good protection for serious secrets.
  • Sometimes you have to rely on them to discuss things anyway, because sometimes there is just no other viable way to have a conversation that needs to happen. But it is a serious risk, and in the long term, it’s fairly likely that people will figure out who you are.
  • If you’re violating a serious taboo, use Tor. 
  • If you’re using a pseudonym for something, make sure you’re not also using that username for something publicly linked to your real name. (For instance: People get unmasked all the time because they use the same username for OkCupid or Twitter as for their anonymous writing).
  • It’s probably a bad idea to put a link to something you wrote anonymously on Facebook. People who know you are likely to be able to figure it out. Even if them knowing isn’t a problem, they might comment in ways that make it obvious to the people you need to conceal this from.
  • Not all email lists are created equal. Some post their archives publicly in ways that can be googled; others don’t. Make sure you know which kind of email list you’re on, and post accordingly.
  • Be aware that most chat programs keep records of conversations, and consider whether the person you are talking to can be trusted not to share them (whether intentionally or by accident).
  • Use good passwords for your accounts, and don’t tell them to anyone. This comic has a good explanation of how to select good memorable password.