Social media sins: don’t let your online guard down

6 Jan 2011

As far as Dermot Williams of Threatscape is concerned, if you don’t have your wits about you social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can be a minefield.

Following a spate of internet security, social networking and stolen password incidents in the past week, Williams advises people to “cop on before logging on” and has a number of top tips for safety online.

Williams says there are two mistakes most people are guilty of: the common but imprudent practice of using the same password for multiple websites; and how people willingly give away personal details on social networking websites, such as where they live, their possessions, or their movements.

The latter, he says, occurs all the time because people are letting their guards down.

“Due to the informal nature of many websites like Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook, people tend to let their guard down and post personal information. This makes it easy to find out things like where people live, their holiday plans and even if a home is vacant.

“To scope out a property from the comfort of their couches someone can even use Google Street View to assess their targets. This is a burglar’s dream come true!

“The analogy to remember is that what you post on social media is more akin to shouting it out in a crowded pub half filled with strangers than whispering it to a trusted confidante.”

Password practice

The common practice of using the same password for multiple websites makes it very easy for cyber criminals to access not only one but potentially all of your other websites and services – both personal and corporate – such as email accounts and online banking websites.

“This is like having the same PIN card for all your laser and credit cards – don’t do it!

The danger this practice poses can be best illustrated when a group of hackers calling themselves ‘Gnosis’ got their hands on user passwords and exclusive files on US blogger site Gawker.

“Users should be cautious in everything they do online, and social networking is no exception. In our grandparents’ days it was a case of ‘loose lips sink ships’ – nowadays you might say that ‘loose tweets sink fleets’.

Cyber expert Williams’ top 10 tips are as follows:

  • Use safe passwords – Treat your password like a toothbrush: change it regularly and never share it with others.
  • Avoid ‘reset’ raiders – If a site lets you reset your password by answering a question like your mother’s or pet’s name, select a question to which no one could possibly know the answer.
  • Think before typing – Anything that would make you feel less secure if it appeared on a billboard should not be posted to a social network.
  • Avoid a false sense of security – People may not be who they say they are, and your location may not be as secret as you believe.
  • Be suspicious – Maintain a healthy suspicion of people you meet online. Parents should teach their children to do the same.
  • Privacy pays – You don’t really know all those ‘friends’ you have on Facebook. Restricting access to just friends is not always safe.
  • Read the small print – Watch the terms and conditions. With your permission sites may scan your address book and sell your details to third parties.
  • Don’t let your worlds collide – Keep your personal and professional lives separate online: what impresses friends may horrify employers.
  • Online is forever – Remember it’s your digital footprint across all sites, which others can see – and see forever – even when you thought you had deleted everything.
  • Secure first, surf second – Keep up to date with security such as anti-virus, firewalls and the latest software patches.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years