How Much is Too Much?
It’s time for The Lowdown with Lou! Our online expert is back with a look into what you should and shouldn’t be sharing with sites…
Posting personal information online – how much is too much?
I spent some time thinking about where to begin with this blog series; the dangers of social media (and positives!), how to spot fake emails, what to do if you or someone you know is being cyberbullied, “friends” online, personal information…then my thoughts stopped. Personal information online – the catalyst to many a problem that could so easily be avoided.
So what do I mean by ‘personal information’? Things like name (obviously) date of birth, address, phone number, age, job title, name of school – these are all things I’d class as personal information. These things are YOU and make up who YOU are, and in my eyes as an outsider, give me a very good picture of you, and you life. Sure, some of these change throughout your life (such as school etc.) but the point of what I’m saying is, this is all information about you that could, in the hands of the wrong person, be used against you.
Anyone who has any kind of social media account will know that personal information can be freely displayed and is required to set up an account, which on the whole, isn’t too big a deal. Name, email address and hobbies/interests are questions often asked when setting up accounts and things online, but where do you actually draw the line at giving out your personal information? How much actually is, too much?
This is a question only you know the answer to, only you know how much information about yourself you’re happy to have out in the wild. Personally, I like as little as possible about me to be out there; so I am very cautious when it comes to providing or displaying information about myself, both online and in the real world. The main reason for this is I think it’s my information and it belongs to me, others don’t really need to know it! But probably more importantly I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to steal my identity. So, to help make the decision on what information to give and what not to, I have a little process I go through when filling in information requests. The first thing to do, and arguably the most important (rash decisions rarely end well), is to just STOP. Stop what you’re doing, sit back, and just take a moment to look at what you’re being asked. Is this a valid request? Do they actually need this information from me? Consider why they might need it, if you’re happy with why they want it and what it might mean if it became public. Then you can make your (informed) decision. For example, lets say I’m setting up a new social media account, and they have asked me for my name, email address, phone number and bank account details – all of which are valid requests in the right situation. The name and email are “required” information, i.e. the account cannot be created without it, and the phone number and bank account details are optional, i.e. the account can still be created if I don’t give this information. So, lets work through this.
First, just STOP. I’m taking a moment to look at what I’ve been asked for, my name. They need this information to know who I am, to name my account and it’s a pretty standard question, so yes, I’m happy to enter that.
Next my email address. Why might they need that information? To send me updates perhaps? or to verify my account? It’s also pretty common to be asked for email addresses when signing up to things online these days, so I’d say this seems like a reasonable request, so yes, I’ll happily provide my email address. (My email account is also secure from outsiders with a good strong password, so if it is displayed online, nobody should be able to do anything with it). Good, that’s the two “required” fields covered, so no matter what happens next, my account can be created. Yay!
There are lots of places online where you might be asked for personal details – think carefully about what information you are asked to share!
Now, onto the optional information: my phone number. Why might they need this information? Well, it could be used to authenticate who I am, and protect my new account from someone trying to steal it, or they might send me updates via text. My advice here would be to check if this is the case, if they don’t offer that kind of authentication, you need to stop and ask yourself again, why would they need this information? Chances are, they probably don’t. Also, ask yourself, do you want your phone number displayed openly on your new profile for everyone to see? So anyone can text or contact you? Personally I’d say no, and ‘opt out’ of providing it.
Finally, bank account details. This is definitely a place to STOP. Why do they need this? Does it cost money for this account? Are there options to purchase apps/games/credits? Is there the option to purchase these things another way, as a one off payment? Is this information essential? If the answer is no to the last question, it’s not essential, then I wouldn’t enter it. They don’t need it – so why give them it?
This doesn’t just apply to social media either; for example, if you’ve ever been asked to register to view a website, or had a survey pop up on your screen (I’m just going to butt in here before I continue and say a lot of these pop up surveys are scams which I wouldn’t recommend you touch with a barge pole – I’ll cover this in more detail in a couple of weeks time though) then these are also things you seriously should stop and quiz yourself about. As much fun as the internet is, sadly there are some who use it for bad things, and for some, gathering personal information about users, is pretty much their goal. Any time you enter anything about yourself, or display personal information online, you could be putting yourself at risk.
Another area to seriously think about, is the popular pastime of “checking in” on social media everywhere you go. On one hand its great, shows your friends and family all the cool places you’ve visited and things you’ve seen – it can be great fun! On the other hand though, if you’re a ‘serial checker inner’ kind of person, pretty soon patterns are going to start emerging about your movements, and checking in at your home address is always going to be a big no no.
You may well be saying “so what, what can people do with this information?!” well you’d be surprised. Lets set up a quick hypothetical scenario here, to show you what it could be used for; remember that online form you filled in the other day, from that funny looking website you Googled when you were looking to buy some new shoes, where you had to enter your name, address, phone number to continue to the shoes? Well that form belongs to me and I’m a bit of an Internet troll. After a little bit of searching using information you gave me, I’ve now found your Facebook account. The information you have freely displayed there, such as your date of birth, your school, your relationship status, your home town and your photographs, have led me to your Twitter account and your other social media accounts. Now in just a few minutes I’ve got a pretty good idea of who you are. I’ve learned what school you go to, or where you work, where you like to hang out at weekends and what your hobbies are. I know what you look like, from your photos and I’ve now got a pretty good idea of who your friends and family are. Now, if you’re ok with this, then that’s absolutely fine, as long as you are aware and you fully understand the implications. If you’re not, then just take a moment to think about what I could do with that information. I could potentially, set up my own social media account, in your name, and quite easily pass it off as you, even though I’ve never even met you. Or, I could contact you, and talk to you about personal things, and make you think I know you. I could text you, befriend you, and gather even more information. See where I’m going with this? I also heard a presentation back in 2010 about an experiment into personal data online, which found that some social media sites could display enough personal data to allow a passport application form to be filled in – this is really scary stuff.
I’m not actually out to scare anyone though, that’s not the point; I just want to highlight the responsibility you all have with your data in the online world. If you have been sensible with how much of your personal information is viewable on your social media accounts, or have your privacy settings set so only your friends can see, then in my hypothetical situation earlier I wouldn’t have gained anymore information about you when I found your account. This is something I will cover in more detail in the coming weeks, as protecting your accounts is super important when considering your online identity. I’m also going to be covering the “fake world”, where fake emails, fake websites and fake goods live, and demonstrate to you how the personal information you enter online can be used to entice you into a whole world of trouble.
For anyone thinking “I’ve done that! I’ve entered information about myself!” don’t panic! Just do me a favour and go check your online accounts now, remove or hide any information about yourself that doesn’t really need to be there, and adjust your privacy settings to secure them. And if you have any other concerns, speak to a parent, a teacher, a friend, anyone, to get more help and advice – there is always a solution available :)
So, here we are, we’ve reached the end of this weeks blog post! As a quick re-cap, my advice to you on filling in and posting personal information online:
Whenever you’re putting any information about yourself online, stop, take a moment and ask yourself “is this absolutely necessary? What could people do with this information?”
If it’s “required” information, to set up an account for example, again just stop and take a moment to consider if it’s a legitimate request – if you believe it is, and you’re happy to enter it, then go for it!
If its not classed as ‘essential’ information, it’s personal choice on whether to enter it – personally I wouldn’t. They don’t need it to set up your account, so there’s no real need for it to be there – unless you want it to. In which case, just be sure you know the implications!
If you want to display your information online then that’s your choice, but know the risks!
Until next time, stay safe!
If you need some advice and want to speak to us about online worries – or have a question for Lou! – then email us to [email protected].