Millions of people all over the world use social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace to meet, chat and message each other on line. But how safe is it to share personal information like this and how can you protect your privacy?
Whether you are using a networking site, internet dating or just chatting on a forum, the chances are you are putting personal information online. Once it's out there you may not be able to control what happens to it. This could pose a risk to your privacy or even your personal safety. So before you create a profile, post a picture or tell the online world what you've been doing, think about how to make sure you're safe online.
The Data Protection Act
Any website which collects information from you has to follow the principles in the Data Protection Act. Among other things, this law means they must keep your information safe and only store it for as long as they need it, but how much detail are you giving them and who else will see it?
When posting on websites it's also worth thinking about the impression you're creating - would what you write or the pictures you post cause embarrassment in later life? How would you feel if a potential employer or your parents saw details of your private life?
Protecting personal details
Privacy settings control the amount of information people can see about you. On some sites these are automatically set at the most private level but on others all your information can be seen by other people unless you specify otherwise. Set the privacy level as strictly as you can. Remember, you can't take information back from people once they've seen it but you can always put more information on once you become more comfortable with a site and its users. It's worth regularly reading the privacy policies and user agreements on sites to understand how they use your personal information, for example do they pass it on to marketing companies?
Be careful about what you post online. Little bits of information can be used by others to build up a picture of you that could be misused. Don't reveal your home address, telephone number, date of birth or where you work to strangers. Keep your password safe and avoid obvious ones that others may guess, particularly if you also use it for other things like internet banking. It's also worth having a separate email address just for social networking so you don't have to give away any other contact details.
Most people do use social networking sites safely. They are a great way of meeting new friends and keeping in touch with old ones. Control access to yourself online the same way you would offline. As long as sites allow you to control who you contact, who contacts you and what, if any, information they find out about you, they can be a privacy-friendly way to socialise.
If something starts to spoil your enjoyment - unwanted attention, offensive comments - report it to the site administrator. Above all, learn how the sites you use work and use them safely.
Top tips for protecting your personal information
- Check out the privacy settings of websites
- Read the privacy policies and user agreements regularly
- Keep passwords secret and change them often
- Rmember what you tell people online can affect your safety offline
- Reality check - would you want parents, teachers or employers to see your profile?
National Advice About Safe Social Networking
Here are some useful sites for keeping yourself safe on social networking sites.
- Get Safe Online - Safe Social Networking a national UK website.
- Facebook Best Practice - Sophos anti-virus on Facebook security.