Social media is an integral part of modern life for a great many people across the world.
However, social media privacy, or a lack of it, is something that everyone should take notice of.
Specific dangers include hackers, scammers, identity thieves and sexual predators.
At the less severe end of the scale, some individuals simply have concerns regarding nosey ex-friends and partners.
In this social media privacy guide, we'll show you the dangers and step-by-step actions to protect yourself.
There’s no need to exaggerate the dark sides of social media.
Here are just a few horror stories that serve to illustrate what can happen when people don’t take their online privacy and security seriously:
- Countless people have their houses burgled due to advertising the fact they are away via their social media accounts. If you think this sounds far-fetched, consider the fact that as far back as 2011, 80% of convicted burglars stated that social media was widely used to identify properties to target.
- A 15-year-old girl in the UK was raped and murdered after being targeted on social media over a two-week period, prompting the police to release a video warning of the dangers.
- An Australian widow was scammed out of over $100,000 after being convinced she had befriended a serviceman on Facebook. The man was a fraudster who gradually drained away all of her money.
- An elaborate and convincing lottery scam relieved a man of around $1500 after convincing him he’d won a large jackpot. Thanks to some clever Facebook trickery, the scammers managed to convince the (initially skeptical) man that one of his relatives had also won and successfully claimed the prize previously.
As you can see from this short list of examples, the dangers can vary hugely, but with impacts ranging right up to death and personal tragedy, nobody would be wise to ignore them.
Criminals are always working to stay one step ahead, and often come up with scams so sophisticated that even tech-savvy individuals can be fooled.
An additional dark side to all of this is that people looking to exploit social media for their own ends often take advantage of the fact that many people use these networks to fill gaps in their lives.
This can mean targeting those elderly, lonely people for whom Facebook is a lifeline for reaching out to friends and family, or capitalizing on the “look at me!” impetus of Instagram. By using a blend of technology and psychology, criminals can genuinely exploit people’s weaknesses.
This guide is all about helping you avoid the dangers, and taking you through steps that will enhance your social media privacy. All while still ensuring you can enjoy all the benefits and attractions that these popular sites have to offer.
Social Media Privacy Overview
It’s worth pointing out that while the social media platforms tend to offer plenty of functionality to lock down profiles and improve privacy, they rarely activate many of the relevant settings by default. There are a couple of reasons for this;
- The first is that the sites and apps are naturally more attractive and appealing to new users when things are kept simple.
- The second reason is the grim reality that it’s not really in the social media companies’ interests to keep everything particularly private. More information that’s freely “out there” means more information to sell to advertisers.
- Thirdly, making posts and pictures default to “public” access means it’s easier for people to use the platforms to snoop voyeuristically into the lives of other - and, let’s face it, that’s a lot of what makes these platforms so compelling.
All that said, social media companies do have an interest in keeping their platforms as secure as possible, and providing users with a host of options to give them fine control over privacy, and this guide will help you take full advantage of them.
We will cover everything from password security to privacy settings, along with everything in between, for the most popular major social networks. Whether you're looking for a job in social media, or just looking to stay secure, these tips will come in very handy.
Strong Passwords and Password Generators
If you don’t work in IT, you probably feel like technology professionals sound like a broken record when they talk about the importance of password security. There’s an excellent reason for this, which is that many people don’t take any notice.
Despite extensive press coverage of hacks, scams, and cyberattacks, a survey conducted by The Telegraph in early 2017 revealed that internet users continue to use ludicrously apparent passwords for their online accounts. Some of the passwords in the top ten include “123456,” “qwerty,” and “password.”
IT pros don’t continually talk about best practice for passwords because they enjoy repeating themselves. Your passwords are usually the direct key to your online accounts, so making them easy to guess is doing the cyber criminal's job for them.
Of course, the usual objection to this is a valid one, which is querying exactly how people are supposed to generate, remember and use complex and unique passwords for every single online account, especially when, nowadays, we all have dozens of them. We move onto managing multiple passwords in the next section, but first, let’s talk about generating secure passwords.
One way to come up with long and complex passwords is to use personally memorable phrases consisting of several words (sometimes adding numbers and punctuation if the service requires it). These passwords are more secure than you might think, as the cartoon image in this post explains.
It’s surprisingly easy to come up with them individually, but they are complicated and hard to crack from a technical perspective. However, the difficulty of choosing a different one for every site remains a valid point.
An alternative is to use a password generator, such as this one from LastPass, or one built into a password manager solution, which we discuss in the next section. Once you have a password you think is secure, you can use our very own password strength checker, which will not only tell you the strength of your password, it will explain the reason for the verdict also.
If you’ve never been hacked in any way before, you’ve been incredibly lucky, because two-thirds of US adults have already had their social media privacy breached by a hack at some point. It could be your turn soon, and it could be reasonably argued that if you’re one of the many people using “123456” or “password” to protect your personal information, you’re taking a very “gung-ho” attitude to your own security and privacy and inviting trouble.
Next, let’s talk about a way to manage all of these complex passwords, which, by now, we hope you consider as a necessity.
The most basic form of a password manager is the kind built into a web browser, such as Google Chrome’s Smart Locker Apple’s iCloud Keychain. You’ll no doubt be familiar with these when you’re frequently asked if you want your web browser to “save your password.”
Saving passwords in a browser is undoubtedly convenient, but it’s often not wise. If you share a computer without a secure login of your own, it’s almost certainly a bad idea. However, to be fair to the likes of Google, their password handling is more secure than it once was.
That said, using a browser-based password manager is no substitute for using a proper, dedicated password management solution. Doing so will also help you ensure you don’t rely on your browser remembering your passwords at the expense of having no proper record of them anywhere else.
A good password manager will help you generate secure passwords, and keep them stored away in a safe and encrypted manner. Used correctly, this means you can be even more secure by creating separate unique passwords for everything, without relying on a screen surrounded by Post-It notes, or a superhuman memory.
You’ll find a guide to some of BestVPN’s favorite password managers here. Alternatively, here’s a brief description of a few you may wish to try out:
KeePass is an open-source password manager with extensive features, but it’s not the most straightforward thing for non-techies to set up. However it’s completely free, and the perfect tool if you wish to manage a large number of passwords, which you can keep neatly categorized.
KeePass integrates with all the leading web browsers and mobile devices, and thanks to its open source nature offers access to a vast range of plug-ins to provide extra functionality, such as biometric support and integration with online backup services.
KeePass is described as a “passport safe,” and that’s precisely what it is. Even if its slightly techie approach daunts you, it’s free, and therefore well worth a go.
LastPass is one of the world’s most well-known password managers, and is available as both a free product and a low-cost commercial offering for individuals and families. The free product has certain restrictions, but still has lots to offer; The chargeable versions add on a bunch of extra functionality such as encrypted online storage and support for multi-factor authentication (more on that in the next section).
Where LastPass really excels is in accessibility and ease-of-use, making it an excellent choice for novices and technophobes. Unfortunately, there’s always some trade-off between ease-of-use and total security, and some privacy specialists dislike the compromises the company has chosen to make, such as making an “Emergency Access” feature available.
StickyPassword is another password management solution with a choice of a free or premium version. However, in this case, features like cloud backup, sync and premium support do make it worthwhile to splash out the small fee on the premium option.
StickyPassword has excellent support for fingerprint scanning, and is a great solution for both desktop and laptop computers, as well as mobile devices. Encryption is military-grade, and local Wi-Fi sync keeps everything extremely secure.
While a password manager application isn’t essential when it comes to social media privacy, it does make it easier to have different and suitably complex passwords for each of your accounts. With plenty of free options available, it’s well worth setting an hour or two aside to try one or more out.
Two Step Verification
Two-step verification (sometimes known as “two-factor authentication” or “2FA,”) is a widely-used way of making online accounts more secure. It’s used by banks, social media sites, and all kinds of other online services.
In case you think that two-step verification sounds like something awfully technical, it’s almost certain you already use it in some form. The simplest explanation is that it uses something you have as well as something you know. Without both of these parts, you cannot gain any access.
An oft-used analogy for this is when you use a cash card at an ATM. The “something you have” is the card, and the “something you know” is the PIN code. With only the card, you couldn’t draw money out of a machine, and the same would apply if you just had the PIN.
Many websites and online services use this principle to allow you to add extra security to your accounts. It’s important to note that in the case of social media, activating this kind of two-step verification is encouraged, but usually optional. It’s, therefore, a quick and easy feature to start using to bolster your security, and ensures nobody can crack into your account by merely guessing the password. Implementation varies between different social media platforms, so let’s look at the main ones:
On Facebook, there is a range of various options. To find them, you need to log in to your account, go to “Settings” (accessed via the downward arrow on the top right of the page), and then “Security and Login.” Next, click the “Edit” button to the right of “Use two-factor authentication” to see all the different options.
The simplest option involves using your mobile phone as the second “item” in the two-step verification process. You can either choose to receive an SMS message containing a unique code when you try to log on to your Facebook account from somewhere new for the first time, or use the Code Generator feature (hidden away in the Facebook mobile app) to generate a code when you need one. In both cases, you can’t log on from somewhere new without both your password and the code.
Facebook offers various other, more advanced two-step verification options, including one-off passwords for Facebook apps on games consoles and other devices, and integration with universal security keys, but for most people, the SMS or Code Generator options fit the bill. They’re simple to set up, and instantly boost your social media privacy by making it far harder for hackers to break into your account.
You’ll find a guide to all of Facebook’s options here.
On Twitter, the settings are similar but less sophisticated. The principle is the same, in that you supply Twitter with a cell phone number, and activate two-phase authentication. This will force Twitter to require a one-off passcode (sent by SMS to that number), each time you log on somewhere.
To access this setting, you need to access the Twitter options when you’re logged into your account on a computer. The settings menu is on the top right. Click “Settings and Privacy,” and then tick the box that says “Verify login requests.”
When you do this, it makes sense to visit the “Mobile” menu on the same screen to double check that you have the correct and current mobile number set up - otherwise, your login codes could go to the wrong place. If you have trouble finding the options, or wish to set up two-phase authentication using Twitter’s mobile app, there’s a guide here.
Instagram’s two-step authentication is almost the same, but as Instagram is a mobile app, first and foremost, you activate the extra security from your phone.
All you need to do is open the Instagram app, then go to your profile. Access the settings menu by tapping the “settings” cog, then tap “Two-factor authentication,” and switch on the “Require security code” option. Again, you’ll need to make sure Instagram has your correct mobile number, or you could risk locking yourself out of your own account. If you have any trouble finding the options, there’s a guide on how to do this here.
Two-step authentication is also available on Snapchat. Like the other networks, the feature requires you to receive a one-off numeric code via SMS to log on to the service on a new device. To switch this feature on, open Snapchat on your mobile device, and tap the Snapchat icon in the top left. Next, tap the “settings” cog icon in the top-right, select “Login Verification,” and follow the prompts. You can also use Google Authenticator as an option - details of this can be found towards the end of this guide.
There are also various ways to shore up your login process for Google’s various services. See the later section in this guide for details.
It’s worth emphasizing that it’s well worth taking the effort to activate two-step authentication for all of your social media accounts. It only takes a couple of minutes to set up, and is arguably the one step you can take that has the most significant effect on boosting your security. As you will generally remain logged in to your social media accounts on your main devices anyway, it doesn’t slow you down day-to-day, but merely makes it far harder for an opportunistic hacker to access your accounts.
Dangers of Facebook
As we discussed in the introduction, criminals can and do make use of Facebook to gain information about your life and location. Despite this, studies show that a significant percentage of users don’t adjust their privacy settings, and many leave all of their Facebook activity visible to anyone who cares to look. This includes the people behind the staggering 270 Million fake or fraudulent accounts on the platform. So what are the main dangers of Facebook?
The first comes back to the central tenet of social media privacy, which is that most people want to share photos, statuses and experiences with their friends and families, but not with the entire world. Where the danger lies is that people who don’t regularly review their security settings risk sharing to a far wider audience than they intend, often unintentionally. We will move on to checking that this doesn’t apply to you in the next section.
Unfortunately, the dangers don’t end with photos being shared more widely than is ideal. The sheer number of fake accounts (as mentioned above) illustrates just how many criminals and dishonest people there are on Facebook. Some may even be posing as your friends after copying their accounts - so always be wary if you get a friend request from someone who you’re sure you were already friends with.
The intentions of Facebook’s dishonest users vary - some may be the burglars discussed above, trawling the network for people who are away on holiday with their valuables left unprotected. At the darker end of the scale are the fraudsters and sexual predators, using the platform to prey on vulnerable people. As I previously discussed in my guide to online safety for children, there are some shocking statistics around the proportion of youngsters who are approached by strangers online, and also around the number of teenagers who go on to meet online associates in real life.
There’s absolutely no doubt that these online dangers are very real. That’s why it’s worth the short time it takes to boost your social media privacy on Facebook. So, let’s move on to the most important settings to look at.
Facebook Privacy Settings
Let’s start off by looking at just how “locked down” your Facebook profile is. If you’ve never played with your privacy settings before, you may be surprised at quite how much of your life you’re sharing with the world - including ex-friends, ex-partners, employers and business associates.
Log on to Facebook on your computer and go to your profile page. Click the “...” (three dots) icon to the bottom right of your header picture, and select “View as…” You’ll then see your profile as “Public.” So this means you’re seeing everything a random Facebook user would see if they found you via Facebook’s search facility.
If you’ve worked to lock down your account before, you may only see your header image and current profile picture. However, it’s more than likely you’ll also find that there are some photos, comments and perhaps even statuses visible to the world. In many cases, what you see may shock you, when you realize it’s visible to anyone who cares to look. If you’re wondering how this came to be, there are plenty of possible reasons. You may have photo albums (such as smartphone uploads) where the photos are automatically set to “public” view, or have your account set up in a way that other people can post to your timeline without permission.
If you’re one of those people who hides some activity from certain “friends” on Facebook, you can also use the option at the top of this screen to view your profile “as” a specific friend, so you can confirm what they see.
Armed with this information, you will have a good idea of what you need to do to start increasing your social media privacy on Facebook, so let’s run through the most important settings.
The Privacy Settings and Tools Options
Most of the key settings are found in the “Privacy Settings and Tools” options. You get to this by clicking the small downward arrow in the top right-hand corner of the Facebook webpage, clicking “Settings”, and then selecting “Privacy” on the left-hand side.
In the settings on the right, you can select who can see your future posts (choosing from “Public,” “Friends,” “Friends (except certain people),” and various other custom options.) You can make a similar choice regarding who can contact you via Facebook, and who can look you up via your email address or phone number.
It’s actually quite easy to lock your Facebook privacy down to a decent degree; By limiting post visibility to your chosen friends, limiting “friend requests” to “friends of friends,” and restricting who can look you up to only “friends,” you’re as private as it’s possible to be on Facebook. However, it’s worth noting that there really is no way to go “off grid” on Facebook. If this is what you’re seeking to do, it’s best to avoid the platform altogether.
Having changed these things, you may think you’re done, but there’s another important step. If, after changing settings, you once again use the “view as…” function described above, you may be shocked to see that there’s still a bunch of content that can be publicly viewed. This is because changing these settings hasn’t done anything about what’s been shared retrospectively.
To sort this out, return to the “Privacy Settings and Tools” options, and make use of the “Limit past posts” feature, which should allow you to block the public (or “friends of friends”) seeing your historical content. However, it’s still worthwhile to continually check the “view as…” function until you’re happy with what a member of the public would see when they arrive at your profile. If need be, you can go into any remaining individual posts and photos and manually change their visibility as you require. Please note that as per this link, your current profile and cover picture is always available for public view.
It’s important to remember that reviewing your Facebook privacy settings isn’t something you should treat as a one-off task. Sometimes Facebook changes their default privacy settings and makes them less private, or you may just occasionally share something more widely than you intended by mistake.
Other Things to Consider and Look At
There are a few other important settings worth looking at, but before that, it’s worth considering a clear-out of your “friends.”
If you’re someone with hundreds (or even thousands) of Facebook friends, you may wish to consider the wisdom of making your online friendship so easily available. Not only are you potentially sharing the minutiae of your day-to-day life with a wide circle of people, you’re also giving all of the friends of your (perhaps superficial) friends a window onto your life and the option of sending you a friend request. This may not bother you, but it’s something to think about. If you want real social media privacy, it should start with being protective of who you’re willing to let into your online “circle.”
Timeline and Tagging Options
Next, it’s worth looking at your “Timeline and Tagging” options, located underneath the privacy settings in the same left-hand menu.
Here, you can select who can post to your timeline, whether you have to review their posts before they are published, and who can see them once they are up. Most of these options have an “only me” selection so that you can have full control of what gets added to your Facebook presence - but this isn’t the option that’s active by default. By playing around with these settings, you can do much to prevent people adding embarrassing content about you without your knowledge!
It’s also well worth looking at the “Blocking” options in the menu below and adding people who you really don’t want going anywhere near your Facebook profile. If you are ever hassled, harassed, or made to feel uncomfortable by anyone on Facebook, adding them to your blocked list should be something you do routinely.
Locking Down your Apps
Another important section of Facebook settings to look at, again on the same left-hand menu, is the “Apps” section.
As you probably know, thousands of apps link to Facebook. Many of them are enticing games, or those popular “which Simpsons character are you?” style quizzes.
The problem with many of these apps is that they request significant access to your Facebook account in order to function. Often people don’t realize just how much privacy they’re compromising for the sake of a couple of minutes of mindless diversion.
To take a look at all the apps that have some level of access to your Facebook account, look in the right-hand section of the screen when you go into the “Apps” menu under “Settings.” For each of the apps, you can click the tiny pencil icon to see which parts of your profile it has ongoing access to. In many cases, you’ll probably be shocked to find out.
The best method for dealing with this is to remove all the apps you no longer use, and have a good look at what permissions you’re granting to those you wish to keep. If you feel an app is encroaching unnecessarily on your privacy, then get rid of it.
(While writing this guide, I looked at a random app on my own Facebook profile. It was one I’d used to list the cities I’d visited years ago. I was shocked to see I was sharing a huge amount of information with the app, the app provider, and probably all kinds of third-parties. The information included my date of birth, status updates, photos, likes, and relationship status. It’s truly shocking to think that this app was harvesting so much of my data.)
With the above in mind, it’s worth emphasising that it makes sense to give serious consideration to the trade off between providing Facebook access to apps and games, and compromising your privacy. Is it really worth sharing everything you post with a faceless company for the sake of playing an online game for a few minutes here and there? Often it’s really not.
After completing all the steps above, your Facebook account should be significantly more private and secure than before.
Dangers of Twitter
Twitter is a somewhat different beast to Facebook, but some of the dangers are the same. When it comes to privacy on Twitter, you have one fundamental decision to make; This is whether to make your tweets private, and therefore only visible to people you permit to follow you, or whether you tweet publically and allow anyone to follow your account. (We cover these settings below).
Of course, the whole point of Twitter (for most people) is the ability to tweet thoughts and feelings and interact with the wider world. Plenty of people pride themselves on their number of followers and are delighted when that number increases.
In many ways, this introduces similar dangers to those present on Facebook. For example, if you choose to tweet details of your holiday and you allow anyone to see your tweets, you are potentially advertising your empty home to burglars. Essentially, the more personal information you choose to share, the more you are compromising your privacy. So, if you have a Twitter account that’s open to anyone who chooses to follow you, it’s down to you to make a judgement call on what you’re willing to reveal about yourself - on your short profile, and in your tweets. For example, you may want to consider refraining from sharing your hometown on your Twitter profile.
One specific Twitter danger that hits the news constantly is the risk of online trolling, bullying and threatening behavior. This is often directed at celebrities, politicians and other high-profile people, but anyone can fall victim to it. One report in 2017 revealed that female UK politicians received over 25,000 abusive messages in just six months. While it’s always possible to block Twitter users, there’s no doubt such behavior from trolls causes considerable worry and stress for the recipients.
Another danger to be aware of on Twitter often presents itself in the form of direct messages (DMs). Often, Twitter users can receive direct messages including web links that lead to websites connected to criminal behavior, such as online fraud and phishing. It makes sense to be very wary of direct messages from strangers, especially those leading to unknown websites.
Having covered the key dangers of Twitter, let’s move on to the settings you can review to boost your social media privacy.
Twitter Privacy Settings
Before we start delving into settings menus, it’s sensible to emphasize that the main key to your Twitter privacy lies with your personal decisions on what to share. If your account is open for all to see, and you choose to tweet about your current location, you are revealing where you are to anyone who cares to find out - and you need to decide whether or not you’re comfortable with that.
Similarly, if you wish to get involved in political discussions on Twitter (and many people do!) it’s entirely up to you to what extent you wish to share your views. If those views are controversial enough to provoke strong reactions from other Twitter users, you could be opening yourself up to trolling and abuse from people with other opinions. Of course it’s fair to say that this kind of “debate” is part of Twitter’s appeal for many!
Choosing whether to Tweet Publically or Privately
As discussed above, the key decision you have to make regarding Twitter privacy is whether you want a public account or one that’s “locked down” to only the followers you wish to accept.
To access the setting for this, you need to go to the “Profile and settings” menus in Twitter, accessed (on the Twitter website) via an icon in the top right-hand corner. It’s also possible to access these options via the Twitter mobile app (see more info here).
Within the “Privacy and safety” section, you’ll find an option to “Protect your Tweets.” This option is NOT selected by default, as Twitter makes all tweets public unless this option is selected.
If you decide to turn the “Protect your Tweets” option on, then your tweets will only be visible to your followers. Furthermore, anyone new who wishes to follow you has to wait until you accept their follow request. This essentially locks down your account to only those people you wish to follow you. However, it’s important to note that everyone who was following you before you activated the option will still be able to see your tweets unless you choose to block them (see below).
For further reading, you’ll find a Twitter article explaining the difference between public and protected accounts here.
Additional Privacy Settings
On the same “Privacy and safety” menu, you’ll find some additional settings you may wish to tweak to improve your privacy, whether or not you opt to protect your profile.
One worth taking particular notice of is the “Tweet with a location” option, which controls whether you add a location to your tweets. In most cases it’s worth ensuring this is switched off, unless you particularly want to advertise where you are. If you’ve had this setting on in the past and change your mind, there’s also an option to “Delete location information” from your previous tweets.
If you’re trying to keep a low profile on Twitter and wish to make it more difficult for people to find you, you can also uncheck the two boxes on this screen that allow people to find you using your email address and phone number.
The “Receive Direct Messages from anyone” option is another you’ll probably want to ensure is unticked. This will prevent scammers and fraudsters sending you direct messages enticing you to questionable websites. By leaving this unticked, you ensure that only your followers can send you a direct message.
There are also a few other options in this section that are worth considering, such as not allowing people to tag you in photos, and controlling how easy it is for people to add you to Twitter team accounts.
Blocking People on Twitter
If you wish to block people on Twitter completely - for whatever reason - there are two easy ways to do it.
The first method is to visit their profile on the site, click the small “three dots” icon near the top-right, and click on “Block .” Once you’ve done this, they will be unable to message or follow you. There are more details on the implications of blocking people on Twitter here.
One particular implication of blocking people that it’s worth being aware of is that blocked users could still see your tweets if you have a public profile and they’re not logged on to the account you’ve blocked. If this is a concern to you, you’ll need to consider whether you’d be better of switching to a “protected” account, as described earlier.
You can also block users “on the fly” while you’re browsing Twitter by clicking the small downward arrow next to any person’s tweet, and selecting the block option from there.
Like Facebook, Twitter allows connectivity from a host of third-party applications. These range from apps that link to newspaper comment sections by allowing you to “sign up with Twitter,” to Twitter tools and mobile apps that allow you to post to Twitter without using the Twitter website or official apps.
You can see what apps have access to your Twitter account by visiting the “Apps” section in the same settings menu. It’s well worth having a good look through the list and using the “revoke access” option for any app you don’t recognize or no longer use.
When you link an app to Twitter, you choose how much access that app has. In some cases this access is minimal, but in others, apps are given the right to tweet on your behalf - so to maximize your privacy, you should minimize the number of apps that have any kind of access.
Some Final Thoughts
Tweaking your Twitter settings to enhance your privacy is a really quick job, and one well worth doing. While you’re there, you should also activate the “two step verification” discussed earlier in this guide.
Whether you choose to go for a full “protected” account (a good idea if you wish to keep your Twitter activity between you and a small group of friends and family), or merely exercise a little more control over a public account, the options are there - making it possible to use Twitter without compromising your privacy more than you’re comfortable with.
Dangers of Instagram
Instagram is an interesting service when it comes to social media privacy, because it could be argued that the majority of users are actively seeking views, likes and new followers - to an even greater degree than on Twitter.
Many users add multiple hashtags to their Instagram posts in the hope of boosting their reach and having their photos and video clips seen by as wide an audience as possible. This rather flies in the face of a desire for privacy, as it’s reasonable to argue that privacy isn’t something the average Instagram user is in search of! That said, there are settings within Instagram that it’s sensible to review. There’s also, in common with Twitter, the option of locking down an Instagram account so that it is only visible to followers you authorize personally.
When it comes to the dangers of Instagram, it’s really much the same landscape as Twitter. The dangers include the risk of falling victim to trolls and criminals, and the perils of revealing too much about yourself and your location. As with the other social networks we’ve already discussed, your overall level of privacy comes down as much to what you decide to share on the service as which settings you select. So let’s move on to those settings now.
Instagram Privacy Settings
As Instagram is, first and foremost, a mobile platform, Instagram’s privacy settings are accessed via the Instagram mobile app.
To access the settings, open the Instagram app, and tap into the “Profile” section (the small person icon in the bottom right.) Then tap the small “cog” icon that appears next to the “Edit profile” button to access the settings menu.
Choosing a Public or Private Account
A private account on Instagram is exactly the same as a protected account on Twitter. If you opt for a private account, nobody will be able to see your content unless you’ve approved them as a follower. In common with Twitter, people already following you at the point you switch your account to private will remain as authorized followers unless you block them. To switch to a private account, simply activate the “Private account” option at the bottom of the “Account” section of the settings menu.
Whether or not you choose a private account depends on how you wish to use Instagram. With a private account, you’re essentially locking out anyone you don’t authorize. This is perfect if you only wish to interact to a small group of followers, such as family and friends, but for many this goes against the purpose of Instagram, which is to have your content seen by a wider audience. Ultimately, the choice is yours.
Other Privacy Settings in Instagram
Compared to the other networks here, there’s not as much you can control in Instagram when it comes to privacy, because it is, by its nature, a far more open social network. However, here are some additional options you may wish to consider:
In the “Photos of you” section of the settings, you can control whether people can add photos to your profile by tagging you into them. If you want “power of veto” over these photos before they are published, then select the “Add Manually” option. (Note that “Add Automatically” is the default setting.)
Within “Story Settings” you can control who can reply to your daily Instagram stories, and also dictate whether or not your followers can further share your stories. This is another option that’s allowed by default that you may wish to disable if you want to boost your privacy.
Blocking People in Instagram
Blocking in Instagram works very similarly to blocking in Twitter.
While browsing your Instagram feed, tap on the username of anyone you wish to block. This will take you to their profile page. Next, tap the small “three dots” icon at the top-right of their profile, and select the red “Block” option.
You will be asked to confirm after you block each user, and you are able to review your list of blocked users in the main settings menu.
Some Final Thoughts
As with Facebook and Twitter, it’s well worth activating two-step verification on your Instagram account, regardless of what you decide to do regarding your other settings.
Beyond that, it’s really up to you how you wish to use Instagram - but even if you plan to try to become the next Instagram star or brand influencer, it’s still possible to enhance your privacy a little by spending a few moments tweaking your settings.
Dangers of Snapchat
Snapchat is a very different kind of social network, designed around a more instant type of interaction between friends, rather than the idea of building up a timeline of all your historical activity.
Snapchat has evolved quickly, having started off as a platform for messages that would “self destruct” quickly after they had been viewed. Loads of features have been added since the launch, and more are added all the time. It’s now possible to keep “stories” live on the network for 24 hours, and to save “snaps” to a personal storage area. However, the basic principle of Snapchat as an “impermanent” social network still applies. (You’ll find a great primer on Snapchat and its ongoing evolution here.)
This impermanence of messages, coupled with Snapchat’s huge popularity amongst the younger generation, makes Snapchat a particularly worrying platform for parents with children who use it. Snapchat’s location service (Snap Map) is of particular concern, as when activated, it can make it scarily easy for other users to pinpoint someone's location. Thankfully, this feature is disabled by default, but if your young children use Snapchat, it’s definitely worth checking they’ve not activated it.
Snapchat’s dangers are similar to those of other social networks, including the risk of online bullying and trolling. What makes it unique is the temporary nature of the messages on the platform, and the fact it’s so popular with kids, yet often ignored by older people - creating the risk that teenagers may be using something their parents don’t really understand.
For this reason, it may well be the case that you need to check the privacy settings on behalf of your children (if you are a parent), rather than for your own account.
Snapchat Privacy Settings
The key privacy settings in Snapchat relate to who can see what you post. It’s possible to configure the app to make everything you post visible to anyone on the platform. Thankfully, the default settings are rather more restrictive than that. Unless you’re trying to build a personal brand or running Snapchat on behalf of a company, there’s little reason why you’d need to share things so widely.
To look at the settings, tap the Snapchat icon in the top left of the app. Then, tap the “settings” cog icon in the top-right. Scroll down the section marked “Who can…”
In this section, you can control who can see your posts or add you on the network. In most cases, you’ll want to choose “My Friends,” for the “contact me” and “view my story” options. Unless you really want to show your location, it’s best to leave “See my location” on the “only me” setting. The Verge describes Snapchat’s locational features as the network’s “biggest privacy threat,” as discussed here, so please think very carefully before activating this for a wider audience. If you do decide to allow people to see your location, it’s best to keep this to a select group of friends and family.
The final feature in this section is marked “see me in quick add.” This is rather like how Facebook suggests people you may know. This can be useful in helping “friends of friends” to find you, but for maximum privacy, it’s best to disable this feature.
Blocking people in Snapchat
On the settings menus referred to above, you’ll notice a “Blocked” section, where anyone you’ve chosen to block on the platform will show in a list.
To block someone on Snapchat, tap into their profile from the main Snapchat app window. Tap the “three lines” icon in the top-left, then select “block” from the menu that appears.
Some Final Thoughts
One additional step towards privacy in Snapchat is to refrain from allowing the app to scan through the contacts on your device in order to suggest more people to connect to. However, as this step happens as part of the initial setup, it may be that you (or your child) has already allowed this to happen.
Therefore, as part of a privacy clean-up for Snapchat, it’s well worth looking through the list of contacts (or doing so with your child), and removing anyone who shouldn’t be there.
Finally, as discussed earlier in the article, it’s well worth activating two-step verification for logging into your Snapchat account, as per the instructions above.
Google is an internet giant, but it’s not a social network. However, the company’s largely ignored Google+ service is still operational, and that IS a social network. Presumably, Google hoped it would one day come to rival the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but it never really captured the public’s imagination. (There’s an interesting study of how Google+ compares to other social networks here).
We touch on Google+ and its privacy settings shortly, but we’ve also included a general section on Google here. More than one Billion people have a Google or Gmail account, and combined with widespread daily use of Google search, this means a huge proportion of internet users hand over a lot of information to Google on an ongoing basis,, which inevitably has an impact on privacy.
In the following sections, we look at some risks associated with Google and Google accounts, and suggest some settings you might want to review if you want to take back some control with regard to how much information Google stores about you.
Removing Yourself from Google Search Results
Have you ever Googled yourself? What comes up will depend a lot on how active you are online, and also how obscure your name is. If you have a “one of a kind” name, it’s likely you’ll find yourself at or near the top of the search results. Whereas if you have a more mainstream name, or share a name with someone with even a small amount of online fame, you may have to look a little further to find yourself.
Regardless, perhaps you have wondered what you can do if something comes up in a Google search that you feel compromises your privacy; Something you’d rather have removed.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a case of deciding you want something gone from the internet, and asking Google to remove it. In Google’s official advice for managing your online reputation, the company suggests that your usual first port of call should be the owner of whichever website the content is on, assuming you’re trying to have something removed.
However, Google is capable of removing certain information from the search results if you can convince them that the content is causing you distress. The kind of content Google will remove from search results includes things like medical details, government ID numbers and offensive images. See here for further information.
There are two points to note here; The first is that while Google can remove things from the search results, they can’t remove the actual content in question - only the people in charge of the actual website where the content appears can do that. Secondly, as you will see from Google’s removal policies, there are a limited set of circumstances under which the company will act on a removal request. Even so, if you feel there’s information on you in Google’s search results that shouldn’t be, that is the route to follow to have it removed.
Google Accounts and Their Risks
If you use the internet with any kind of regularity, the chances are the Google holds a lot of information about you that you may feel could have an impact on your privacy.
For the purposes of this guide, we focus on Google accounts and Gmail accounts, but it’s also worth noting that if you use Google to search for things online while you’re logged into one of your accounts using default settings, Google is likely to have a long and detailed record of your search history! If this is something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you should check out this guide to viewing and deleting your search history.
If you use Gmail, Google Drive and/or Google Apps, especially with the Chrome browser, Google gets to see rather a lot of what you do online. For those interested in protecting privacy, this may not sit well. So let’s now look at the risks of these Google accounts:
It may or may not come as a surprise to you, but it’s a well-known fact that Google has the capability to read all of your Gmail messages and Google Drive docs. In fact, until recently, Google used the content of personal Gmail messages to target relevant advertising (one of many reasons why it sometimes seems as if your web browser knows you better than you know yourself!)
To be clear, this doesn’t really mean that there’s a bunch of Google employees sitting and reading your email - at least we hope not. However, the capability is there, and it’s a clear risk for the privacy-conscious. It’s recently been confirmed that Google can look at documents stored and shared in Google Docs, as well as in Gmail. Ostensibly, this is so Google can root out pornography or illegal content - but it does basically mean that Google isn’t a particularly private platform for email or online document storage.
Unfortunately, there’s not just something you can click to make these Google services more private and secure. It comes down to how much you trust the company and how comfortable you are with the privacy sacrifices you have to make. If you’d rather move away from Gmail having discovered these realities, you’ll find a guide to secure, private email services here.
Privacy Settings for Google+
Returning to the subject of social media privacy, let’s take a look at Google+, Google’s own social network.
Google+ didn’t exactly set the world alight, and never ended up truly competing with the likes of Facebook. However, thanks to Google rather aggressively “opting people in” to Google+ as part of using Gmail, for example, there’s every chance you have a dormant Google+ account, even if you’ve not used it for years. Furthermore, if you’ve not got the privacy settings right, you may be “leaking” personal information through the account that you don’t wish to be sharing with the world.
Assuming you have a Google account, you should be able to access your G+ profile via this link. If you then click the “Edit Profile” button, you can review what information is set to “public.”
After that, click the “About” link, for further information on what data you are sharing with the world via your Google account. The information seen in this window is relevant to other Google services, such as Photos and Google Drive, as well as to Google Plus.
For each piece of information in your profile, you can keep it private, share it with your “circles” or “extended circles” (essentially the equivalent of Facebook’s “friends” or “friends of friends”), or set the information to “public.” If you’ve not reviewed these settings before, you may well find that you’re sharing more with “public” than you’d really like to be. For example, there’s no real reason why you’d make your date of birth public, unless you wanted to make life really easy for identity thieves.
There are plenty of other settings to work through, which you can get to by clicking the circle at the top-right of the Google+ window (which usually contains your photo), and then clicking the “My Account” button.
The most important place to look in here is the “Your personal info” section. Don’t be too alarmed if you see your full phone number in there, as it’s probably only there as part of the security on your Google account. However, it’s worth ensuring that the options for “Help people who have your number connect with you across Google services” and “Also help them find your name, photo and other information that you've made visible on Google,” are disabled if you’re trying to keep a low profile.
Finally, you’ll find an option in the “Your personal info” section for “Sign-in and security.” This allows you to put two-step verification in place for your Google account, as we discussed earlier in this guide.
If you choose to activate two-step verification, you are guided through a simple wizard and sent a code to your cellphone via SMS. Once the two-step process is active, you will need your Google password and a one-off SMS code each time you log in to your account. This makes your account considerably more secure.
Once you have set up two-step verification, Google provides a host of other options for the second step, as an alternative to an SMS message. You can print out codes for when you may not have your phone available, use USB security keys, or make use of a handy app called Google Authenticator.
Google Authenticator is an app for mobile devices that continually creates and updates one-off login codes. You’ll find information on it here. You can use it as the second step for logging in to your Google account, and for numerous other online accounts.
If you find yourself using lots of websites that require a login and offer two-phase authentication, it’s useful to use Google Authenticator for extra security. You enter your usual username and password, and then simply refer to your phone or tablet for the latest one-off passcode. It’s really easy to set up, simply requiring you to scan a barcode for each site from your computer screen.
It’s not essential to use it for your Gmail account, but you may wish to consider it, especially if it could come in handy for other sites you use. Websites for financial products, in particular, often have Google Authenticator support.
Social Media Privacy Conclusion
Social media and privacy are not natural bedfellows. However, the information in this guide should help you to choose which compromises to make between remaining connected and retaining some privacy. It doesn’t take long at all to work through the steps for each platform. Just remember, however, that this is a process worth returning to periodically, and not something to set and forget. Your privacy is worth half an hour of your time on occasion.