Online Privacy

Within a week of signing up for Facebook, one doctor I know received a friend request from a name he didn’t recognize. Then, it dawned on him, the potential “friend” was one of his patients. Most professors can share a similar story of friend requests from students and the thinking that goes into the decision to accept. Do I want to remain accessible and open up new channels of communication with trainees? Or do I want to maintain a private life online?

One way to tackle this dilemma is to realize that the whole notion of privacy on the Internet is antiquated. Even when you think you are erecting walls to protect your personal data, new technologies are poking holes in those protections. For example:

  • Do you ever log on to a social media site from Starbucks? Most wireless connections do not encrypt all the information you send to your account. A new browser extension, Firesheep, collects log ins from those around you and lets you impersonate them online.
  • You may think your personal information is safe when you reject a friend request on Facebook. A new feature, however, makes it harder to reject a request outright. The first option is to accept a request or “not now.” Clicking “not now” removes the request from the screen, but still allows the person to see parts of your profile unless you hit a second button to reject them outright.
  • Facebook does make it possible to control information through privacy settings. But to do so requires checking 170 different options in 50 separate categories. Increasingly, the default position is to allow more access to your data. This graph nicely illustrates how much of your information is automatically revealed if you don’t take proactive steps.
  • So you think you’ll outsmart Facebook by keeping a barebones profile just so you can have access to your friends’ postings. Even with no data to go on, Facebook can triangulate information about you using your friends’ profiles and target you with specific ads.

So, it may be a false choice whether to accept the patient’s or student’s request as a friend. They and others can still find out about you on-line. One option is to join a privacy-centered social media site like Diaspora. More realistically, just assume that everything you post will be visible, and surf accordingly.

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