The paranoid's survival guide, part 2: Protect your privacy on social, mobile and more

Here's how to minimize your personal data footprint when messaging, on social media, and using mobile apps

security privacy

Is privacy dead? Not by a long shot. While you can't control everything that's out there about you, there's quite a bit you can do to reduce your data footprint -- or at least avoid adding to it. For this series, Computerworld asked nine privacy experts for tips and tricks they use for keeping their own personal data profiles on the down low.

Whether your goal is avoiding tracking by marketers, ensuring your personal safety or protecting yourself from government surveillance, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure both online and off, these professionals say.

Part 1 of this series covered how to maintain your online privacy and surf the Web without leaving a data trail. Here, in part 2, we offer advice on how to approach social media, messaging and some general rules you should follow when using mobile apps. Part 3 covers how to minimize your offline data footprint, and where to go to opt out. (For more tips, also see our "60-minute security makeover: Prevent your own epic hack.")

3 ways to shape up your social media

Don't sign up for a new service using Facebook or another social networking account

When a website tells you it's easier to register for its service using your Facebook account, what they really mean is that it's easier for them to pull all available information about you from that site and use it to build a profile on you, says Rob Shavell, co-founder and CEO at privacy software vendor Abine. Always choose the "sign up with email" option, and don't use the same email address you use for Facebook or other social media accounts.

Lock down those social network privacy settings

Review and set the privacy settings for every online service you use, and revisit those policies regularly to update them, as the services tend to change their policies frequently, says Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum. "Make sure you lock down the settings in every social media profile, and test it to see what others can see about you," he suggests.

Think before you post

On social networks nothing is truly private. "Be aware when you post with whom you are sharing," says Sid Stamm, senior engineering manager for security and privacy at Mozilla. What you post can be used against you, either now or in the future -- by snooping government agencies, political operatives, potential employers or online marketers that want to serve up interest-based advertising.

Even when you delete a post it's likely to persist. Your "friends" can copy/paste anything visible to them into other sites or email messages. And with Twitter your posts are part of the public data feed that's routinely captured by data brokers and others interested in analyzing that data. "The act of deleting just means removing the visibility on Twitter," says Robert Hansen, a security researcher and director of product management at the website-security vendor WhiteHat Security. But every data broker or other organization that has consumed your Twitter feed between the time you posted and the time you deleted the message still has the data.

Don't post photos of your kids, your interests or when you'll be going on vacation, he adds. "If it's something I even briefly pause about, I don't put it on social networks. Treat everything in social networks as adversarial, and then you don't have to worry about it."

Online job sites and online dating sites are the two areas where people give up way too much information about themselves, says Casey Oppenheim, co-CEO at anti-tracking software vendor Disconnect. "Your name, address, where you went to school -- all of that information about you can be used to answer challenge questions," he says. Online dating sites may use questionnaires to collect extensive psychological and demographic data in an effort to build very detailed profiles that may be retained even after you close your account.

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