May I have your attention please?  May I have your attention, please?  Do I have your attention?  Are you sure?

Now that you’ve seen the caption bouncing off of what is, effectively, a fashion show for the fashion challenged, let’s talk about something that is even more important:  Internet presence for the security challenged.

Why talk about this?  Why should you care?  Because it’s your future we’re discussing here.  Not only that, it’s your present and, the more you stay at it, your past.

See, you’re the one that is taking pictures of your Hot Fries on the seat of your car, and geo-tagging it.  Or, you’re the one with the mommy-blog who is photographing your toddler in the park at 2 pm every day, and then Facebooking it with “We are at this location.”  Maybe you’re the one who is writing a crush site for your best/worst frienemy, and you think you will never get caught.  Or, you’re the one who is slapping together YouTube videos with kids streaking through your college dormitory.  What do you care?  You’re playing.  It’s all taking place in the comfort of your own car, dorm room, study cube, or in the park with no one else around.  What could possibly happen?

Get this, genius:  You’re talking to the whole wide world.

Do you really want to publicly broadcast your whereabouts, or even worse, your family’s whereabouts?  Do you really want vids of naked people online, some of them underage kids?  (Hint:  Child Pornography laws apply here and to you.  Are you listening now?)  Do you really want your future college recruiter, or worse, future employer, to see the crush site you published to bully someone in high school?  Do you really, truly think that no one will ever notice when you do something dumb in public?

Take a Look In the Mirror

Public image from:  http://www.rakuten.com/th/80s-adult-costume.htmlThere’s a discussion that I like to have with teenage performing artists.  Okay, so it’s with teenage girls, in particular.  See, teenage girls – especially young singers and dancers – love to impersonate adult superstars.  You can form your own opinions about that, but the crux of the matter is that adult rock stars tend to have something that the average teenage girl does not have.  They have a paid, armed security detail whose only job is to make sure that the audience doesn’t get to come anywhere near the talent that just performed on stage.

Lacking this important buffer, and completely oblivious to the fact that it really is important, I have watched teenager after teenager prance up on stage with outfits that could make the cover of Playboy.  For the most part, they are innocent of the consequences of their actions.  They don’t know that the simple act of climbing up onto the stage actually subtracts a few inches from their hemlines.  Meaning, the dress that was cute when they were standing on the floor is now rated NC-17 on top of the performance platform.  To their credit, they also tend to be mortified when that realization strikes them, and then they act on it.

As such, this is all it usually takes to make things clear to them:

“Imagine the creepiest guy you know:  The one who has been tracking you with binoculars since you started wearing a training bra, who picks his nose and peeks out the window to see if you’re in your room.  This is the guy you will go around the block to avoid, and who is asking you out every day even though you have been saying ‘No’ since you were eleven.  That guy.  Now, seeing as this is a public performance and you are singing or dancing in it, imagine that guy sitting right in the middle of the front row, right under the stage, and looking straight up.  Got the picture in your mind?  Now, go get dressed.  It’s showtime.”

Hang onto that image tight, because you’re going to need it.

The Internet Is Public

What if we said this:

“Imagine the creepiest human being you know.  This is the person who always seems to be around when you’re walking your kids home from school.  The person who always pops up when you are at the grocery store, who always tails you at the mall.  The one who is forwarding sick jokes to you all the time, and whining when you don’t respond.  You hide from them when you are in a chat room.  Imagine that this person is sitting at their computer watching every word you type onto your screen, analyzing every photo you post, watching every frame of the video you capture, and taking every digit apart in a desperate attempt to get closer to you and your world.  If you're not paying for the service, you're the product, not the customer.Now, update your status.  It’s Facebook time.”

Yes, that is your internet presence.  You don’t have to be a teenage girl.  You could be a 62-year-old grandmother or a middle-aged man with nothing better to do on his lunch hour.  That’s the beauty of the medium, we are all equally vulnerable.  It’s very tempting to fall into a trance while sitting at your desk in a bathrobe; to think that everything you do or say is between you and the back wall.  Don’t be deceived.  Even if your own mobile phone in your own pocket is private, the internet is public.

Yes, public.  Game, set, and match.  Even the private parts of the internet are public.  Set your social networking “privacy” all you want, but the larger World Wide Web project isn’t really even built with privacy in mind.  It’s built to connect everyone and everything with each other.  Privacy controls only work by clamping down, shutting out, and attempting to mask the public nature of the internet.  The web was built for exposure.  Anything that is exposed carries an intrusion risk.  Anything that can be touched can, eventually, be broken into.  Therefore, the only way to totally remove the risk of digital intrusion is to cut your cable and disconnect your computer.

As a digital security specialist, I have noticed some very disturbing trends since the dawn of Web 2.0.  Very few of them are under your control.  You don’t own the sites that you are using.  You use them by trading in your personal information.  Your privacy settings can drift from wide open to airtight on the whim of the site’s management, and the management definitely is handing your details around to its friends.  So how do you fight it?  Simple, jump off of the social networking sites and never use them again.  But I’m not that stupid.  You’re sticking around on social media, so let’s just deal with it.

You can’t control them.  You can control you.  Here’s how.

Guard Your Location

You don’t have to broadcast where you are.  I know geo-tagging is cool, but do not give into it without thinking.  Always ask yourself:  What happens if Creepazoid is looking and sees it?  Are you okay?  Who’s got your back?  What happens if s/he sees the geo-tagged photo of your little girl at the playground?  Can your child be found by the time/date/location stamp right inside the photo you took?  What happens if you leave your apartment to go to Florida, and then tag yourself there?  Is someone watching your apartment?

Guard Your Loved Ones

As bad as it is to get yourself in trouble with a random post, it feels a lot worse if you’ve messed up someone else.  Watch your tags.  Status tagging is one thing, but photo and location tags are much more sensitive.  Facebook asks people to review these – or at least they do now.  But give it a second thought.  Who are you involving with your post? Is that person a minor?  Do they really need you to broadcast them to the world?  Would your photo description suffer at all if you don’t even mention their name?

Guard Your Tongue

Remember, the post is not yours once it lives on someone else’s server.  They can let you delete it, but that’s strictly up to them.  If they want it, they can certainly keep it, and there is little you can do to stop them.  Try picking a fight with a site’s super-administrator and see how far you get.  If you don’t want something to live in history forever, don’t write it on the internet.

Text is a cold medium.  Most people are accustomed to using their faces to express emotion, and forget that no one can see their face while they are posting a comment.  Arguments start fast online, and catch like wildfire.  What you type matters.  All caps in red letters, for example, is universally recognized as a “flame” attack.  But something else also matters:  Unless you are certain that the other person is picking a fight, why not walk away and rethink your response?  You might not understand each other, particularly if you don’t speak the same native language.  What you say in response to someone could stop a fight, and thereby stem off a potential attack on you.  Return a soft answer, and quench the flames.  It can only change your life for the better.

The same goes double for the sickness of cyberbullying.  If you are the type who thinks this is cool or fun, get a life.  And realize, as well, that you leave a trace everywhere you go.  Trashing another person is playing with fire, and the consequences for you are likely to be permanent.  If this describes you, cease, desist, and make amends before it’s too late.

Guard Your Media

The best is saved for last.  I cannot adequately cover, in one post, all of the ways that you can damage yourself with a photograph.  They are too numerous to mention.  I have written specifically about geo-tagging photos in another article, so here I will say only briefly:  Your photograph on your phone has location information you may not know about.  Check your settings and get rid of it.  It is useless at best; at most, it’s potentially harmful.

But what I really want to talk about is photo and video content.

The Creepazoid Rule applies here, in spades.  Post nothing of you – or anyone else – that Creepazoid should not see.  Post nothing that you would not want a stalker or your opponent’s lawyer to see.  If you’re a parent, post nothing – either in the status, photo, caption, or embedded in a meta tag – that you not would want a child abductor to see.  If it’s online, it’s out of your control, forever.  You do not own the copy you post.  Get it?  Don’t blame your social media site for not protecting you from your photos.  It’s not their job.

Play Safe

There is hope for all of us who have made a mess somewhere.  Most social media sites really do allow us to clean up after ourselves, so it is possible to get busy and get this fixed.  If you’ve really stumbled hard, there are now people who are in the business of fixing our online reputations for us.  Although I have a lot to say about keeping out of trouble, it’s not my intent to kill the internet.  I spend the bulk of my life online, so I’m interested in keeping things running.  But you, as a “netizen” are a big part of that equation.  Be aware of who you are, where you are, and who is with you; even and especially if that person is with you sometime in the future.  Look both ways before crossing the street.  And before you go out playing with a camera . . . really, are you wearing THAT??

Just kidding.  Be safe, take control.  Now, go have some fun.