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Protecting your safety-minded friends on social media

You might be putting your friends at risk by having different risk tolerances for online safety. For example, you might like checking into restaurants for free perks, but your friend might be dealing with a stalker who has been trying to find them. Another one of your friends might have recently been a victim of identity theft and trying to lock down information that would help a hacker gain further access to their accounts. Even if you have less stringent safety requirements for yourself, it’s important to keep your friends happy and safe by imagining the worst case of what could happen to them based on your actions.

In this article, I will describe some of the rules that I follow online for protecting myself and other people. Not all of your friends are this strict, and some of your friends might have even more rules that I haven’t thought of. I hope you will use this article not as an exhaustive guideline, but as the start of a conversation among you and your friends about how you stay safe on social media. Ask your friends how they want you to keep them safe online. Ask before posting about them. Respect and follow their answers for all your online interactions with them.

Don’t share anyone’s personal information (name, email, phone number, address, etc.) without asking.

Imagine you get a DM from someone saying they used to go to high school with me and they’re trying to get in touch with me as soon as possible to invite me to a reunion. You might be thinking that you can be helpful and save everyone time by giving that person my email address. But you can’t trust that this person has good intentions. People can make up extremely realistic stories to get in contact with their targets. Even if they’re not a stalker, they might be a scam artist using social engineering tactics to target your friend for financial gain.

The risk of stalking is still valid even if you trust everyone involved. It is possible to know someone for years and not know how they treat other people. Stalkers and abusers thrive because they gain trust from people who will vouch for them and enable their behavior.

Imagine your good friend Alice asks for your mutual friend Bob’s address because she wants to send him a surprise birthday present. You’ve seen them hang out before and you’ve known Alice for years, so you might think it’s okay to share Bob’s address with her. But you don’t know what’s going on between Alice and Bob. She might be a totally different person to him and concealing her behavior to seem like a normal friend to you. If she asks you for Bob’s address, you need to ask Bob first whether it’s okay to give it to her. You can’t assume that Bob would be okay with this.

Assume that names are private information. If your friend’s display name and username don’t contain their name, they might not want it to be associated with their online presence. Even if followers know their full name from other sources, they might want to reduce the chances of a search engine connecting the account to their full name. Before referring to your friend by their given name or full name, check with them on their preferences.

Don’t reveal anyone’s location (through check-ins, location tagging, or otherwise) without asking.

Photo by #WOCinTech Chat is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I rarely post my current location. If I’m at a bar or restaurant and I want to share a cool photo, I wait until I’ve left to post about it. I am terrified of a follower seeing a post about where I am and considering it an invitation to find me.

One example of where this can become a problem is photo posts that include geo-tagging. On Twitter, I disabled photo tagging because I wanted to minimize the chances of someone posting a photo of us while we’re out together. I often get questions from friends about why they can’t tag me in a photo… and then they @ mention me in their tweet anyway. Without understanding why my settings are configured this way (it’s not a bug!), people end up doing what I’m trying to avoid.

Disable precise location tagging. The risk is too high that you will visit your friend’s home, forget about this setting, and reveal your friend’s address by posting while in their home.

Don’t establish a pattern. Some people are sensitive to their home neighborhood being inferred based on places they frequent. If you post something like, “Getting my weekly coffee at Philz with Amy!”, that suggests where I am every week. I might live near that Philz, or I might not want people to know how often I go there.

Double check photos you post for sensitive information.

If you’re taking a photo, consider your location and what’s in the background of the photo. If you’re near your friend’s home, they might not want you to post a photo that shows their home in the background or a distinctive building that can be found on Google Maps.

Here are some specific things you should redact or get permission for:

  • People’s faces (including children)
  • Pets
  • Street signs
  • Pet tags, which usually contain addresses and/or phone numbers
  • Unique buildings or landmarks (consider the colors of the building)
  • Location metadata

If you’re inside your friend’s home, you absolutely need to ask for permission before posting photos from there. Similar to the previous section, you don’t want to reveal information that might directly show where your friend lives (some applications will attach coordinates to your post) or helps narrow down their address.

When in doubt, show your friend the photos you want to post and make them feel comfortable in vetoing any of them.

Don’t invite people to events publicly.

Imagine you see an event that I would be interested in — maybe it’s a tech meetup or it’s a concert with my favorite band. So you comment (or quote-tweet) saying, “Hey Amy, I think you’d enjoy this!” If I have a stalker that you are unaware of, they will see your post and conclude that there’s a high likelihood that I will be at that event. That’s a time and location that they wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Another reason to avoid public invitations is outing. You don’t know what other people know about your friend, so you might, for example, reveal a secret they didn’t want their employer to know. If they are LGBTQ or in another marginalized group, you don’t want to draw attention to that by inviting them to an event that outs them.

Instead of public invitations, you could send a direct message asking if they’d want to go to the event with you. I understand that it’s fun to celebrate your friendship publically — I want to show off my wonderful friends too! — but you can still celebrate your friendship by posting photos of the event afterwards (with their permission).

Final thoughts

Please don’t mock your friends or downplay their concerns. It’s not up to you to decide whether someone’s comfort zone is acceptable. It is up to you to ask your friends about their boundaries instead of guessing.

Safety isn’t about beating yourself up for being careless. We’ve all made mistakes and realized the impact in hindsight. We apologize, we get better, and we move forward.

Thanks to Alice, Amy, Amye, Aubrey, Carla, Caroline, Colin, Connie-Lynne, Danielle, Jerry, Maurice, and Patrick for reviewing this article. I really appreciate their unique perspectives!