Five ways to protect yourself on Twitter and other social media


An American gentleman by the name of Israel Hyman had his house burgled while he was away on holiday. Nothing particularly new there. However, there’s a serious suspicion that the thief had all the information he/she needed through Mr Hyman’s own posts on Twitter.

He’d tweeted that he was “preparing to head out of town” and that he had “another ten hours of driving ahead”. Combined with links to Mr Hyman’s Flickr page containing photos of his computers, bicycle and flat screen TV, all of which were geo-tagged with their location at his home address, and suddenly you’ve got a pretty good picture for a would-be criminal.

Naturally, there’s a lot of scaring the bejesus out of people in the press on this one and, quite naturally, there’s probably a few of you out there wondering whether or not it’s a good idea to be posting all sorts of bits and pieces on Twitter and other social networks. In fact, you may not be sure that it’s safe to use social media at all.

Let me allay your fears first of all by saying, it is. In the great words of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, Don’t Panic. Twitter is safe, Facebook is safe but, perfectly understandibly, there’s a few uncertainties and teething problems because, relatively speaking, it’s all rather new. Even if you’re an early adopter, the game changes slightly when you’ve got the whole world using these things, including potential burglars.

So, here are a few bits of advice that’ll keep you feeling free and uncensored on Twitter and other social networks without ending up like Mr Hyman:

1) Protect your updates

If you haven’t seen, there is an option on Twitter that means you can protect your updates so that only people you allow can see your tweets. It’s indicated by a little padlock. Any time anyone clicks to follow you, you’ll be sent an e-mail asking if that’s ok by you. You can then take the time to check out their profile, look at their Tweets and generally have a good Google of them if you like before you decide whether or not they’re kosher.

It’s really a Twitter version of the Facebook rule of thumb that states “Don’t make friends with people you don’t know” or that warning of wisdom stitched onto our hearts from a very young age – don’t talk to strangers.

2) Watch your words

Don’t write on Twitter and Facebook the kinds of information you wouldn’t shout from the rooftops anyway, eg: bank details, phone numbers, car registration, home address. It’s all fairly indelible once it’s up there and it’s quite easy to piece it all together.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t worry too much about saying what a lovely time your having on holiday or how much you’re looking forward to going or in fact just about anything else at all. If you’ve got your updates protected then you’ve vetted everyone who’s following you in the first place and, if you haven’t, it’s still next to impossible to be get all the other pieces of the puzzle together so long as you have in mind the general expanse of your digital foot print.

So, if you really must put your home address on your profile, then don’t start saying when and for how long you’re going to be away from the the fort.

3) Don’t geo-tag everything

…or at least if you do, it might be worth removing the meta data when you upload your images to Facebook, Twitpic or Flickr. It’s probably worth taking a look at your phone or camera to see whether your pictures auto-tag. As it goes, most compacts and DSLRs don’t have in-built GPS anyway, so you’d probably know about it if there was geo-tagging going on. Most mobile phones these days will offer you the option, so make sure you take a look at the image files before you upload from your handsets.

Of course, for 95% of your photos, it’s not really a problem anyway but worth bearing in mind that everything you snap at home and upload will pinpoint exactly where you live. That may not be a big deal on its own but if you’re not going to protect your updates and if you are going to tweet about when and where you’re going and how long for, then make sure you’re not geo-tagging all your home snaps.

4) Keep your personal away from your business

The real thing that rumbled Mr Hyman, if indeed the burglar did use Twitter and Flickr to case the job, was the fact that he’s got over 2,000 followers and he’s got that many because he’s mixed his personal life and business life in one account.

Quite sensibly, Mr Hyman uses Twitter to promote his online video business but what he hasn’t done is split his personal and business interested into two separate user names. So, on the one hand he wants to be followed by as many people as possible as an advert for his professional services and, on the other, he’s telling them all the more intimate details of his personal life.

Not a good idea if you’re then going to combine that with tweeting about your whereabouts and tagging all your home snaps too.

5) Don’t click on every single link that comes through

Last of all is just an extension of what we should all have learnt by now with regards to safety online. It applies to Twitter as much as it does to Facebook and e-mails too. Just don’t go clicking on every single line of hyperlinked URL that comes your way. Make sure you know who it’s from is probably the best piece of advice here.

If you know who sent it to you, 99% of the time they’ll be no issues at all, and on that 1% of the time when it’s some auto-sent piece malicious link, your friend from whom it came will probably have warned you already.

Generally, you can get away with ignoring one or two of these rules of thumb but if you do them all together, you’re open to running into problems. The overall message is just to be aware of the scope of all the info you put on line. There’s no need to worry about using Twitter, Facebook, Flickr or any other social media. They’re perfectly safe applications. Just be aware of how much of your life you put online.

At the end of the day, houses have been getting burgled for years and there’s only anecdotal evidence even in the case of Mr Hyman that social media was used at all in the invasion and theft of his property. On the plus side, if it was through Twitter, at least there’s a very traceable list of suspects.