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Simply put, blogs (short for Web logs) are online journals. Just as in any journal, the blog owner (or blogger) can hold forth on any subject he or she pleases in words or drawings. But unlike traditional journals, entries can also include lists of favorite music and books, maps, videos, links to Web sites, search tools, quizzes, and so on. (Each blog entry usually contains a title, a profile of the author, a date stamp, photos, and the poster’s comments.) Another key difference? Anyone can visit a blog and comment on what the blogger is saying.
A blog is a great way to express yourself and broadcast your opinions. Unfortunately, public blogs are also used by criminals as a way to collect information that can be used to steal your identity, rob your home, harass or physically harm you, your children, or your friends.
Find out how to keep blogging risks to a minimum (and the fun to a maximum) in the tips below.
- Think carefully about how public your blog is. Think of a sliding scale. The more personal or identifiable the information you share, the fewer people you should share it with. If you want your blog to be public, only disclose what you want everyone on the Internet (the public) to know. Otherwise, keep your blog private.Also, periodically review who has access to your site and make changes if necessary. We all know that friends change over time-for example, you drift apart or experience a rift that breaks the friendship. How will your information be treated then?
- Keep identifying details to yourself and close friends.
A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t share the info on your blog with a strange guy on a dark street, don’t post it for the public.
- Don’t use your real name on your site (or anyone else’s either). Your friends already know the details and its no one else’s business. Create a nickname or screen name that doesn’t attract the wrong kind of attention or help someone find you.
- Don’t give information that puts you on the map. Don’t mention such details as your address, school, where you work, even the town name if it’s small.
- Don’t reveal any information that gives away your age such as your birth date or year of graduation.
- Be smart about the photos you post.
What does the picture show about you-does it attract the wrong kind of attention or help someone find you?
- What’s in the background? Does the photo show your house number, a street sign, a license plate, a clear landmark?
- Did you caption your photos with full names or other identifying details? How does the combination of both text and photos (or videos) multiply the amount of personal information that’s displayed?
- What’s on your shirt? The name of your school, sports team, or club? Your name?
- Who’s in the picture? If it shows friends or family members, you may be putting them at risk, too.
- What else do you see? Can you tell the economic status of the individual or family? Does the photo show emotional vulnerability?
- Be careful about sharing your feelings in your blog.
You probably express feelings in your blog through other ways than just writing. The poems you select, the music you list, the pictures you post-all these tell a lot about who you are and how you feel. A snapshot, too, can reval how you feel about yourself-proud of your body, lacking self-confidence, sad, trying to look sexy or cool? All of this is great information to a predator who’s on the hunt and who would be delighted to make you feel important or special.
- Check out what your friends write about you.
In their blogs, they may be announcing that they’ll miss you because your family is going on vacation-and you may come back to a burglarized house. Or maybe they’re giving out your address or real name so someone can find you. Check the comments they leave on your blog, too, to make sure they don’t give away personal details.
- Be very cautious about meeting in person someone you only know through blogging.
Everything they’ve told you about themselves and their motivation for meeting you may be completely true – or none of it could be. They may feel like a close friend, but they are still a stranger, so never go alone to meet.
- If you think there’s a problem, report it. Immediately.
No one has the right to threaten or upset you. Ever. If anyone (even someone you know) sends you something creepy, says something scary, asks lots of personal questions, or tries to meet you, report the problem. (If you’re a minor, talk to an adult you trust.) Every service should make it easy to report abuse function; if your blogging service doesn’t, consider switching providers.
- Help your kids blog safely.
Young bloggers, particularly teens, are at high risk if they make their blogs available to the public instead of to a limited group of friends and family. This is a time when teens are reaching out for new identities, friends, and validation and are less concerned about their overall safety making them relatively easy targets for predators. To mitigate these risks:
- Talk frankly about what it takes to stay safer when blogging; the points above are a great place to begin.
- Periodically ask you child or teen to show you what they are saying in their blog, what comments they’re getting, and so on.
Safe blogging begins with a solid appreciation of the risks in sharing your information-your nickname, your e-mail address, your profile, blog entries, photos and videos, music preferences, voice clips, lists of favorites, maps, quizzes you take, friend’s comments, and so on.
Understanding how information collects on the Internet is a key part of that appreciation. Think of each piece of information as a drop of water in a bucket. In the past, there was no bucket to store the information and though information was shared, it vanished from memory quickly. Online, however, it collects one drop at a time in a place where it can be recalled and you become more discoverable as the bucket fills. For example.
- Maybe you gave your first name, your city, and state in your blog profile. You told what kind of music you like and you wrote a bit about yourself-when you graduated from school (now someone can assume your age) or where you work and what you do (now someone can assume your education and income level). Perhaps you also share that your parents are divorced, and your girlfriend’s name is Amie. You post a picture of yourself and you upload a few pictures of your car, your dog, and you and your girlfriend goofing off. If you live in a small town or rural area, this is plenty of information for someone to find you.
- With each new blog entry you probably add another drop of personal information—how you’re feeling (now someone knows you’re vulnerable to contact), where you went clubbing (now someone knows where you hang out), something about your mother or sister visiting, or that you’re counting the days until your vacation (now someone knows when your house may be empty).
- When your friends comment in your blog, maybe they call you by your last name (now someone has enough information to track you down or possibly steal your identity). Maybe your friend asks if everyone can pile up at your place to play Xbox on your big screen TV, race bikes with you, or go jet skiing. (Now someone knows what kinds of things may be worth stealing from your house.)
- Maybe there’s a bunch of stuff about you on your friend’s blogs as well that someone can piece together to get a better “picture” of you.
If the only people who see this “bucket” are those who already know you, then you probably haven’t exposed yourself to any significantly increased risk. If, however, the people who can dip into your bucket of information don’t know you, then you have potentially broadcast information about you, your possessions, and likely your family, to criminals.
Cybercriminals use information they find online to help them pinpoint opportunities. Identity thieves look for sensitive personal information; robbers look for items to steal; scam artists target people who seem susceptible to scams; sexual predators search for victims. Crooks may collect the information on their own, or they may use middlemen. These information brokers help criminals by building catalogs of people and items that might be of interest including information about children, identity data, addresses of homes whose owners are away, and locations of cars and other valuable property.
Here are a couple more to add to the list:
- Talk to your family and friends about the kinds of information you’re willing make public and what you’d rather keep private. Everyone you interact with online needs to respect your safety boundaries, and you need to respect theirs. Posting information about others is not okay—in comments, photos, and so on—unless they agree to share that information. And not only should you ask permission, but you should also make it clear who can see your site. In the case of minors, you might need to get their parents’ permission as well.
- Make sure the blogging site you use has clear privacy and security policies, has a simple way to report abuse, and outlines how the site will respond to reports of it. The site should also offer tools to help protect your safety such as a way to control who has permission to see your blog, the ability to block harassing users and to turn on or off comments, and site monitors.