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When Social Networking Goes Bad: Know Your Limits for Sharing

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By Tee Morris

As a law enforcement officer, it’s important to understand how social media works, how the general public uses it, and some of the dangers involved in some of the most popular social media features. In today’s “total transparency” world, it is expected that many police officers and public officials will have a presence in social media, too, so it’s even more critical to understand how these platforms work.

Whether it is Facebook, Foursquare, or Twitter, location-based sharing in social networking — commonly known as “geotagging” — is an increasingly common practice. Geotagging offers many options for community outreach, a way of increasing business, or simply a fun way to share your activities. You’re keeping your network in the know about your own personal whereabouts. Sounds like fun, right?

It is. Until you consider the following: You are currently sharing your whereabouts with everyone — and let’s be crystal clear on that: everyone — on the Internet. Not only are you sharing, you are giving out your location.

With any new technology comes a learning curve, provided you are willing to take the time to learn and understand said technology. Once upon a time, instruction manuals were essential in understanding how something works. (Anyone remember the first home computers and the small library of user guides that arrived with them?)

With the development of plug-and-play technology, the expectation of simply getting new technology and making it work straight out of the box has become a real expectation. Social media has, to a degree, perpetuated this expectation, and now users are jumping blindly into open networks without a thought or care as to what their default privacy settings are.

On Facebook and Twitter, you may see postings that read “I’m at Zip-and-Spin Play Park in Manassas, VA…” or “I just became the mayor of The Blarney Stone Tavern in Charles Town, WV.” These tweets and updates are part of Foursquare, a social network that specializes in geotagging. Similar to BrightKite, and Facebook’s Places option (where you automatically tell people where you are when posting), Foursquare shares your current coordinates when you “check in” with your server, and then recommends things to do and places to go based on your check-in. Your network is built around people who check-in based on your recommendations, and also check in themselves with new and exciting meet-ups, dining locations, local attractions and special events. With each place you check in from and the more you share, users unlock badges that earn you everything from “online clout” to free merchandise from participating vendors to the hallowed title of Mayor of a particular set of coordinates.

While sharing your location may seem utterly harmless (as it happens all the time on social networks), there is a hazard involved on two fronts, particularly as Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter take sharing to a (dangerous) new level by providing GPS-coordinates.

First, social networks share your location at your moment of check-in. This means people know exactly where you are at that given moment. Maybe you want to share that, which is why you are on Foursquare or have enabled “location services” on your smartphone, but in the case of September 13, 2012, a friend of mine — Pam — found herself in the midst of what she believed to be a random carjacking. Pam managed to get away thanks to a protective Jack Russell terrier; and once at home, she filed a police report. Part of that report included granting access to her email, revealing a threatening letter in response to a manuscript rejection. While Pam dismissed the email as “part of the agent’s life” the police investigated the hopeful author’s address. They found a man at the residence not only with prior offenses, but also had fresh dog bite marks on his arm. Further investigation revealed the suspect had tracked Pam’s whereabouts using Twitter and Foursquare, both if which provided coordinates to her exact whereabouts.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Pam has now “… removed [photographs]… tweeted that her husband had her Facebook on lockdown; and she has not returned to Twitter.” I don’t think she is completely off the grid (as I talked to her recently), but she is looking at the grid with a different perspective.

On another level, geotagging gives your network and, depending on your privacy settings in your apps, the Internet exact coordinates as to where you are not in that moment: home.

While concern is often voiced on security and geotagging, the invitation for home buglary is hardly news. Back in 2010, a collection of European security professionals calling themselves FortheHack developed Please Rob Me, a website that was listing in real time Foursquare’s various check-in’s. Debate raged over the ethics of the site’s scare tactics. Mashable applauded FortheHack’s efforts stating “These guys have a legitimate point. Stories about status updates leading to burglaries are becoming commonplace…” while The Daily Telegraph reports “Privacy campaigners have expressed outrage at the website, which publishes a regular updated stream of ‘opportunities’ by detailing the names of Twitter users, when they left home and where they were currently located. Simon Davies, director of the Privacy International campaign group, said the website’s creators had ‘failed in their duty of care’.”

And here we are, two years later, still sharing where we are, down to the precise coordinates.

So before you attempt to unlock that way-cool “Burrito Bandito” badge on a return trip to Chipotle, we’d like to offer a few tips to consider when using social media or handling cases concerning geotagging and social networks:

  • Disable GPS options in social networking applications and smartphone apps. These are the usual suspects responsible for revealing your exact location. When using a location-based app like Open Table or Urbanspoon, these apps will not work without location-based options activated. Check the Preferences and Settings tabs of all your applications, both online and on your smartphones, asking to use your location. Be aware of how they work and how you can turn them on and off.
  • Check-in at the conclusion of an event or meeting. Whether it is to avoid potential stalkers or home break-ins, you can still take advantage of Foursquare and other geotagging options of your social networks by checking in after you have left an event or location. This way, any perpetrator will believe you are at a location when in fact you are on your way home or to an entirely different destination.
  • For any social networking profile, avoid using GPS coordinates. When apps asks for your location, the closest city or major metro area (e.g., Washington, D.C., Chicago, IL) should suffice. Avoid giving away a GPS-accurate location of your home on any sort of public network.
  • Don’t be afraid of social networking. Let people know what you are doing, but be smart about it. You can still share photos of your whereabouts and what you are doing at that moment, but establish boundaries for yourself. Talking about your children? Avoid using their real names. Code names are a good device to employ. At a school or private location, then use another name or a generic word for wherever you are. Don’t communicate when you’ll be arriving or leaving. Sharing with social networks is great, but you are not obligated to share everything. When it comes to personal safety and security online, you are the first (and best) line of defense.

It’s okay to share online. Just don’t check your brain at the door and take a few simple steps to avoid being a target. A few precautions in being selective with exactly how much you share with the Internet can be a very good thing.

~Tee Morris is a senior social communities coordinator at APUS with more than eight years of experience in social media. In 2005, Tee was the first author to podcast a novel from cover to cover, and that experience led to his co-authoring of Podcasting for Dummies from Wiley Publishing. He would go on to pen other books in social media, including All a Twitter (Que Publishing) and Sams Teach Yourself Twitter in Ten Minutes (Pearson Education). He lives in Manassas, VA and continues to talk across the country and around the world on matters of social media, online safety, and science fiction. The latter, he writes in his spare time alongside his wife, Pip Ballantine.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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