Today, technology makes it simple for us to stay connected to far-flung friends and family. But it also makes it easier than ever before to stalk, bully, or harass someone. Social media fosters a sense of community but also a false sense of privacy and security (you may think you're only chatting with a few friends on Twitter, but your tweets live on long after you delete them).
Pre-internet, we might leave a paper trail that anyone with training could find. But now we leave cut huge swaths through cyberspace that anyone with a computer can follow. State laws about cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and cyber harassment vary (click here to look up the ones where you live), but since anyone can forward a text or copy-and-save a photo, the actual number of cyber stalkers out there is hard to calculate.
Here are six ways you leave yourself open to stalkers online-and how to reduce your risk:
- Checking in on FourSquare and Facebook Places: The upside for some people is that everyone knows where you are. The downside is that even the people you don't want following you around can easily figure out where you spend your time. If you're dating, have a crazy ex, or want to keep your coworkers out of your private life, don't check in-and tell your teens not to, either.
- Twitter: It's easy to post 140-character updates about what you're doing, and each one by itself doesn't look like much. But if taken as a whole, it can be easy to piece together far more information that you'd normally share. And you don't have to be logged inor even have a permanent address to see what other people are posting. Be aware of the information you share, and remember that a public tweet can become a public record; if you wouldn't say it to their faces or don't want it held against you later, don't put it out on the internet.
- Facebook: Stalkers aren't always strangers. Ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends, family members, former roommates, and coworkers are far more likely to stalk you than the random guy you met at the supermarket (though he could, too). Consider changing your Facebook settings to make your profile unavailable to search engines, and lock down your information so that your Facebook friends can't share it, and only certain people can see it. (Business Insider has a great tutorial on how to go invisible on Facebook.) And forget about those so-called "stalker tracker" apps-they don't work. According to Jacqui Cheng at arstechnica.com, they show you the users who are most active on your account, not the ones who are lurking. "So, if you had a friend who was constantly commenting on your wall posts and leaving "Likes" all over your images, he or she would show up on the Stalker Checker," she writes. "If you had an ex-boyfriend who was visiting your page every day without leaving a trace, however, he would not show up on the Stalker Checker."
- Online photo albums: If you upload your snapshots to Facebook, Photobucket, Flickr, or Picasa, strangers can search through and copy those photos unless you change your settings to private. Same with videos you post to YouTube or Vimeo. And take a close look at any photo you post online; if you've gone through the trouble of keeping your location private, why post photos with landmarks in the background?
- Smart phones: If you take photos with your smartphone, you may be posting more information than you can see in the picture. GPS-enabled devices can add geolocation information to a photo right as you take it and, when you post that photo online, the metadata (latitude and longitude, time and date) may be posted as well. Check your phone's settings to see if it's enabled or to turn it off.
- iPhone and Android apps: There are several new apps that are supposed to help you navigate social settings, manage your commute, or get information about places that are near where ever you are at a given moment. Grindr, the controversial gay mobile dating app, is debuting a version for heterosexual GPS-powered dating tool that would allow someone to walk into a hotel and see photos and personal information about the other users who are there. Waze.com helps users track traffic conditions using information from other members-which means that another member can track you as well. Be careful about what you download, and be cognizant of who else may be using it.
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