Using Caution on Location-Based Social Networks

Self-portrait in Athens, Gateshead, Helsinki, Kielder Forest, Luukkaa Forest, Krakow, Newcastle, Oulunkylä Forest, Pointburn woods and Warsaw

Artist Antti Laitinen printed his portrait on various maps, then “walked the lines” on the maps. He carried a GPS tracker recording his path, which produced these drawings.

Stories (and email forwards and Facebook posts and sensational news stories) about the danger of social location sharing are common. The caution against them in society is greater for women — I’ve never heard anybody publicly scold a man for using a location-based social network, but women are treated differently.

There are, however, steps you can take to keep yourself safe. This won’t stop someone who truly wants to hurt you or steal your information or property already — they’re simply ways to keep from becoming a victim of a casual thief when you use location-based social networks. Casual thieves are looking for easy in-and-out — that’s why they care if you’ve gone on vacation.

Protect the Nest

Don’t create a location or check in to your home, couch, bedroom, or any location close to your home frequently (neighborhood pool), even if your account is private. Don’t trust your safety to the security decisions of a profit-oriented business. Foursquare doesn’t care if your couch accidentally becomes a public location. If you don’t publish where your home is, it’s a lot harder to rob you. It’s not impossible, but it’s not handed over on a silver platter, either. Exceptions to this MIGHT be multifamily dwellings where you’re living in one of a hundred apartments, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Don’t allow geotagged images to be posted of your home, neighborhood, vehicle in the driveway, etc. Services like Flickr allow you to set up a “geofence”, a way to protect the geotagged photos you already have online from being mapped — though you will need to prevent others from downloading the original files of your images, as the EXIF data of those images will still carry the getotag. You can also change geotags for past photos and future uploads on the Flickr Privacy page. There are a million things to worry about with geolocation on photos and online services, especially because if you don’t know anything about it your photos are probably already geotagged, but I couldn’t have accurately placed 99% of the photos I took on vacations without it, so it has its uses.

Get a toothy dog, alarm system, landscaping lights, good locks, leave the curtains closed when you’re  out. Sounds pretty obvious, but these basic home safety precautions speak to the theft-prevention axiom “don’t make it easy for them”. These basic precautions prevent the casual drive-by thief, but the thief who finds your location online eventually drives by your house to scope it out. When they find that it’s got a scary barky toothy dog inside, an alarm system protecting the outside, it’s well-lit at night, and isn’t very easy to get into, they will think twice about it, and most likely look for another target.

I also like well-lit perimeters and an obnoxious BEWARE OF DOG sign. These are things, though, that you should probably be doing to protect your property regardless of whether or not you use social media to check in. Someone can sit outside your house for a week if they want and know that you’re out of town.

Protect Yourself

Set your privacy according to your conscience. Don’t feel compelled to make your profiles public, and realize that MOST social network profiles are public by default. Get to know your security settings and use them appropriately. Privacy settings are a whole ‘nother universe unto themselves.

Follow basic personal safety precautions. All of the personal safety precautions you’ve heard all your life still hold true. People you meet on the internet are not magically better or worse people than those you meet in person. Trust your instincts, take precautions, and you will have done everything you can.

Don’t check in somewhere you don’t want someone to come find you. This sounds so obvious, but trust me, it’s not. Checking in becomes habitual, even automatic, if you do it often enough.  I checked in to a restaurant recently and a good friend of mine was checked in at the same location. We hadn’t planned it, but met up for a few minutes and chatted, all because of Foursquare. This goes both ways — if I don’t want people in “the public” meeting up with me unexpectedly, or in a place that I would feel uncomfortable dealing with them, I don’t check in there.

Don’t befriend people you don’t know. “Friends” are given a lot of leeway with your information on networks like Facebook, and with ever-changing privacy policies on social networks, you can never be sure that non-friend-friends don’t have your information.

Don’t put information online you don’t want other people to have. When a service REQUIRES someone to give them information unnecessarily, and before they have proven that their company can treat that information with respect, I don’t see any reason why legitimate information should be given.

This request for information is forced disclosure, or “privacy Zuckering“, and it is most often implemented by greedy marketers or people who just aren’t thinking. For myself, if a service requires a phone number without any obvious need for a phone number, they’ll get “a phone number”…it just may not be mine. If I trust the service at a later date, I may update my info and put in my real number, but not until they’ve “earned” it. And don’t rely on the “I can delete it later” idea. It’s on a server somewhere now, too late.

This doesn’t mean that your actual friends will be careful with your personal information — friends send chain emails CCing you and a hundred other people, and they add you to the now-popular group-texting services without asking. It happens. You can only do what you can to prevent this by expressing your opinions when it happens and asking them not to.

Don’t Be Obnoxious

Don’t be a show-off. Fifty brag-shots of your sweet new $15k audio system are probably going to make somebody else want it. Sometimes, yes, that’s the point, and a shot or two of something that makes you happy isn’t illegal, but be aware when you do it that some people don’t take “not yours” for an answer.

Don’t check in *everywhere* you go. I know people who check in at each and every gas station, Kroger, Pizza Hut…some people may have valid reasons for checking in to mundane locations, but those check-ins don’t have to be publicly shared and posted on Twitter. The more you check in to these services the more people see you check in, and can learn to predict your schedule. Reducing the frequency of your check-ins to the most important ones will reduce your “I’m not at home” profile.

Also it’s annoying. I have witnessed many a Twitter account populated only by Foursquare check-ins. I don’t follow them, because, really, they don’t get Twitter — they’re not even there. Don’t be one of them. DISCLAIMER: There are and always will be days when my personal Twitter feed is chock-full of cross-posts from other social networks, and I *do* try to avoid this, but it happens unconsciously, and really, my kids are ADORABLE.

What Do *You* Do?

Any more hints, tips, or tricks for safe use of location-based sharing without being taken advantage of? Let me know!