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How to enjoy some privacy in social media

The police think it’s a good idea to catch criminals—the kind that violates health protocols and government-imposed quarantines—through social media monitoring.

According to Privacy International, social media monitoring or “SOCMINT” is the analysis of the content and/or metadata of social media posts. It may be used for various purposes, including gathering evidence about a person and the crime he or she may have committed. Its target isn’t necessarily limited to those posts set to public. Even private groups or pages are fair game for actors who are capable and
determined enough.

More sophisticated versions of SOCMINT involve scraping or mining data with the use of a tool or software. Perpetrators collect and analyze large amounts of data about a person, which they consolidate in order to build a profile and predict his or her actions.

Laid out like this, SOCMINT is a scary proposition for potential targets of this type of surveillance. We’re talking about journalists, government critics, members of the opposition, human rights defenders, civil society organizations, minors, and other vulnerable groups. More so if the operation is state-sponsored or carried out by government agents because of the unlimited resources at their disposal and the
presumption of lawfulness their work enjoys.

Fortunately, there are simple and practical steps we can take to address this threat. The aim is not to remove the danger entirely—that may be impossible—but rather to minimize it whenever we step into the proverbial ring that is social media.

1. Manage your privacy settings well. Determine how much of what you post or put on your account you want others to see. Unless you’re a public figure who really wants to broadcast a large chunk of your life in exchange for fame, you need to effectively manage access to your personal data. You wouldn’t want the police to chance upon a post you did not intend for them to find. This also lessens the risks posed by identity fraud. The fewer personal details fraudsters are able to collect from you, the less likely they are to succeed pretending to be you. Different social
media platforms give you different options. With Facebook, for example, you can choose to review all photos you are tagged in before they appear on your timeline. You can also decide if you will allow search engines to link directly to your profile.

2. Manage your social circle. If you want to keep much of your life away from the public eye, you shouldn’t be the type who accepts every friend request you get on Facebook, or every follow request on Twitter. Who knows, the next random “friend” or “follower” you add may turn out to be a law enforcement agent doing undercover work, or a criminal looking to steal your information.

3. Refrain from posting sensitive information. By their very nature, sensitive information don’t belong in public settings. Social media platforms, on the other hand, are inherently public spaces (until you adjust your settings and preferences properly). Thus, always evaluate the things you post on your account. Make sure they belong there and not in a more intimate setting. Sometimes it may be as simple as not revealing your location during an activity that may be considered by the police as illegal—even if it’s actually a legitimate exercise of your rights.

4. Be extra careful when posting about live events. If you’re thinking of live-tweeting or covering an event via FB live, weigh things first, then make an informed decision. Whether it’s a protest rally or a press conference critical of the government, it’s important that you are able to look at the pros and cons of letting everyone know of what’s happening at a particular point in time and its location. You may regret it later if intruders end up spoiling or disrupting your activity.

5. Use hashtags wisely. Hashtags make it easy for people to share and search for specific content in social media. If you have an event or a campaign, you come up with a hashtag others can use when posting something about your event or campaign. Anyone looking for information or updates about it can search for the hashtag. Knowing this, you might want to reconsider using hashtags if your activity is something you want to keep under wraps. For those brave (or brazen) enough to think they can outsmart whoever is keeping tabs on them, they can use codes as
hashtags. Those in on it will know what to look for, while those who aren’t won’t.

6. Be mindful of other people’s privacy. It’s rarely just about you. You have to protect others as well. Remember that if you get other people into trouble, trouble tends to find its way towards you, too. Accordingly, make it a habit not to post other people’s photos without their consent, unless you are absolutely sure they are okay with it. Tagging people in photos or posts should be approached in a similar manner.

7. Block people, if you must. Social media platforms often let you block other users. In Instagram, once you block a person, he or she will be unable to find your profile, stories, and posts. Remember though that if your profile is set to public, that person can find you again simply by using or logging into a different account.

8. Maintain separate accounts for your private and public persona. One trick some people adopt is to maintain an account representing their public-facing persona, and another one that’s meant only for family and close friends. This makes it easier for them to separate their private posts from those accessible to the public.

9. Maintain an account under an alias. If you really want to keep a low profile without having to give up social media, you can maintain an account using an alias. Then you simply inform those people you want to know your account’s true identity.

NOTE: Some platforms like Facebook ask you to use your real name (i.e., “same name you use in everyday life”) and create only one account. Strictly-speaking then, these last two items run counter to their terms. To date, though, this author has yet to hear of people getting their accounts suspended or deleted for violating these terms. Indeed, we would have very few trolls today if these rules were being strictly enforced. Besides, Facebook also asks everyone to provide accurate information about themselves and to be at least 13 years old when they sign up. This, and yet we all know someone today who do not subscribe to these rules.

10. Be consistent with your approach to privacy. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth stressing nonetheless. Simply put: you can’t be a hermit or act like a recluse on Facebook, but then post every bit of information about your education and work on LinkedIn, or speak without restraint on Twitter. Good investigators (and fraudsters) know better than to rely only on one platform when they have you as the target of their snooping.

There is one more important caveat to mention. While these steps may help shield you from nosy third parties, they offer little protection from the social media platforms themselves. This can sometimes jeopardize your entire privacy strategy in bizarre ways. There are now stories of people maintaining a second account under an alias getting outed by Facebook’s algorithm after the platform ends up suggesting their “fake” account as a friend to the contacts of their “official” account.

If you can’t get over this and want absolute protection for your privacy, there’s always the option of staying out of social media altogether, which many people still manage to do.

You can find more useful tips on how to protect your privacy from social media monitoring by checking out Privacy International’s guides. Although the materials are primarily directed at migrants and asylum seekers, they are just as useful to the rest of us.

Jamael Jacob (@jamjacob) is a lawyer specializing in the field of law, ICT, and human rights. He is currently the Director of the University Data Protection Office of the Ateneo de Manila University, and Policy and Legal Advisor to the Foundation for Media Alternatives. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the organizations he is currently affiliated with.