Blogging is, by its very nature, a public act. Every word you put online is in front of the entire world and everything you say is instantly searchable and viewable by anyone with the curiosity and motivation to find it.
However, even bloggers who talk about their personal lives typically want to have some level of segregation between their online presence and their existence away from the computer. Most people don’t want random calls on their telephones, they don’t want their personal information posted on the Web and they certainly don’t want to have their identities stolen.
The problem is that the Web does not always respect the boundaries we wish it would. The Web can, and often does, intrude into our private lives in ways that we would not like and, as bloggers,we are especially vulnerable to this.
While it’s not a problem you can completely eliminate, especially with the ever-growing list of research tools and public databases that can impact even those who don’t have an online presence at all, it is a problem we can mitigate.
Unfortunately, it requires some advance planning and forethought into these issues, the nature of the Web is that once something is put out there it stays out there. Still, most of the steps are common sense and are just as important for non-bloggers as they are the most prolific authors working.
There are countless ways that the Internet can intrude into our private lives and they range from the common and mildly annoying to the criminal and dangerous.
For example, if a personal email address leaks into the wild, it may be spammed or misused to the point that it becomes worthless as a personal account, forcing you to secure a new one. While this is annoying, it isn’t necessarily a tragedy.
However, if your home address and phone number leak out, that can lead to everything from harassing phone calls, death threats and even unwanted visitors at your home. This, depending on the nature of the attack, can affect your personal safety and the safety of your family.
Similarly, if your social security number is leaked, or even just enough personal information for someone to perform a credit check, you can have issues with your identity being stolen and used to open lines of credit under your name. You may find yourself with bills for lines of credit you never opened, possibly ruining your credit score and harming your financial future.
Though these pitfalls can strike anyone, as bloggers we are inherently public figures and that means that we are both more likely to be targets for such actions, especially if we talk about controversial subjects, and we have more information out there for others to use against us.
In short, we’re tempting targets that are easier to get at. That alone should give us pause to think about privacy issues before the next time we hit publish.
How to Avoid it
Unfortunately, the nature of the Web is that there is no way to be completely safe or private when using it. Even before you publish a blog, or even before you first get online, there are databases and services that make your information available, often in the form of publicly-searchable government records.
Still, you definitely don’t want to make yourself an easy target. You might not be able to prevent the veteran tracker from learning at least some of your personal info, but you can stop the curious onlooker or the novice searcher from finding the information.
On that front, here are a few tips to help you stay a bit more private online.
- Keep a Separate Email Address: Email addresses are perhaps the best way to track an individual across multiple sites and services. While it’s great to use the same address when you want to be found, such as with Twitter and Facebook, but you might not want it traced back to your dating site profiles. In those cases, have a separate, non-public email address that you use. The same is also true for usernames as well as passwords.
- Use Disposable Phone Numbers/Email Addresses: If you have to post a phone number for any reason, considering using a Google Voice number. Also, when signing up for services that you don’t trust, use a temporary email address such as 10MinuteEmail to keep your other email addresses private.
- Be Mindful of the Information You Post: There’s no reason to post your social security number, home address, full birthdate or similar information. Avoid posting them publicly and when you sign up for a service and they ask for such information, make sure they have a valid reason to need it.
- Use Privacy Settings Well: Social networking sites, in particular Facebook, offer robust privacy settings that you can use to your advantage. For example, with Facebook you can organize your friends into lists and share only certain pieces of information with those closest to you and greatly limiting what the public at large sees.
- Understand Your Level of Risk: Your risk for privacy issues increase both as you tackle more controversial subjects and as you become more popular. Most bloggers aren’t interesting enough for a visitor to violate their privacy, but as you grow in audience or anger more people, the temptation may grow.
- Perform Test Searches: Finally, do several test searches for yourself to see what others might find if they look for you. Look at the information you have on your site and, from there, try to glean as much as possible about yourself using Google as well as dedicated people search engines. If you’re not comfortable with the information available, attempt to understand how it got out there and see if you can have it removed.
Of course, the dark reality of the Web is that, once information is posted on it, is either nearly impossible or completely impossible to remove it. So, the best way to protect your privacy online is to simply be careful about what you post and ensure that you don’t put anything out there that you aren’t comfortable with the entire world having.
That may mean it’s too late for many to protect all of your personal information, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t protect that which hasn’t been posted online and, perhaps more importantly, render the information available obsolete as your life takes you to new places.
The best time to think about privacy is before you hit publish, before you create that new account and before you setup that new profile. Afterward, it is likely too late.
Of course, even the most conscious of their privacy will likely find that their information is still available as much of it is already a matter of public record, but that shouldn’t stop them from trying to minimize who has access to it.
Because, as with general security online, the goal is not to be “completely private” as there is no such thing, but rather, to make yourself a more difficult target and minimize the number of people with the expertise and the interest to violate your privacy.
Unfortunately, as a blogger, you already have a disadvantage in this area, making it crucial that you be even more aware of the issue and smarter about how you approach privacy moving forward.