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Back to October 2012 Newsletter

It was the Timeline of our lives...

by Ryan Coyle

Facebook's Timeline feature can leave you vulnerable, but you can take steps to protect yourself. Maybe you've heard of Facebook? No? Here, let me help you move that rock you've been living under. In all seriousness though, regardless of Facebook's current stock price may tell you about the company, the company recently announced that it had surpassed one billion users. Considering that there are an estimated 2.26 billion Global Internet users, that means that a little less than half of all people who use the Internet have an active Facebook account that they check at least once a month. What this means is that there are a ton of people who use Facebook. Duh.

Beyond the obvious, Facebook’s popularity has drawn with it the attention of hackers and identity thieves. While this has always been the case, nefarious types have a new tool at their disposal to do their dirty work. Facebook has always contained within it, a virtual treasure trove of personal information about us, our likes, who our family is, etc. What it did not do in the past was itemize, group and sort these things by time. For this, we have Facebook’s Timeline feature to thank. When the feature was debuted in September of 2011 some people loved it, even more people hated it. Regardless of your view of it, it’s here to stay and as of late January 2012 your profile has been updated to use it.

What makes Timeline different, and what’s the big deal, really?

In the previous iteration of Facebook if someone wanted to know information about you, they had to dig through your older posts. That information wasn’t readily available or sorted by content type. Thieves, stalkers and other potential predators would have to sort through years of pictures of what you were eating that day, what your cat was doing, or how much you hate it when Facebook changes things. Now the really juicy information that people are interested in is served up categorically. It’s all available at a glance, where you’ve been, what music you listen to, your kids birth dates, your anniversary, etc. Why is this significant, other than the creepiness of it? This information often constitutes the answers to the secret questions that are designed by companies to verify your identity. With a little bit of searching, the locks to our digital identity can often be circumvented by the features designed to help you out in case you forgot your password.

Consider these common secret questions:

  • In what city did you meet your spouse/significant other?
  • What is your oldest cousin's first and last name?
  • What was your high school mascot?
  • What is your grandmother's first name?
  • To what city did you go on your honeymoon?

All of this information is readily available on many people’s Facebook page. All an identity thief needs to do at this point is go to a banking site or credit card login page, and answer a few questions about you that you’ve provided to them via your Facebook Timeline. From there, they can change your password, lock out your account and go buy a levitating hover scooter or Japanese BattleMech with your hard earned moola.

While the reactionary thinking may be to crawl back under your rock and close your Facebook account, for many of us, this isn’t the way to go. The good news is there are ways out there to protect your Facebook account, and preserve your digital identity. Below are some good steps to take back your Timeline and help protect yourself against potential identity thieves:

Make all your past posts in your Timeline accessible to friends only

You may not have always taken your Facebook privacy as seriously as you do when you get older. To that end you may have things that you posted publicly that you don’t want to share with John Q. Public. Instead of going back through manually editing the permissions of all your old content, you can set a blanket statement to limit all of your old content to Friends only. As long as your friends are reputable upstanding citizens, this should limit the number of people who can see potentially identifying content.
To enable this feature:

  1. Log in to Facebook and click on the downward arrow in the upper right corner.
  2. Click on Privacy Settings
  3. Next to Limit the Audience for Past Posts click Manage Past Post Visibility
  4. Click on Limit Old Posts

Set your Default Privacy Setting for Future Timeline Posts

To preserve your privacy moving forward, you’ll want to also make sure that what your posting is for Friends only (at least the stuff that should be). It goes without saying that you’ll want to be careful what you set to be Public and what you don’t.

To set the default privacy setting:

  1. Log in to Facebook and click on the downward arrow in the upper right corner.
  2. Click on Privacy Settings
  3. Under For mobile apps without the inline audience, select Friends

This will make the default moving forward for new shares to be Friends only and not Public. It is possible to change this within each individual item you share, but by setting the default here, you’ll hopefully avoid sharing anything with the Public that could be damaging.

Pick the right secret questions

With the answers to your secret questions providing so much potential power over your digital accounts, you’ll need to make sure that you’re picking out questions that people won’t be able to readily guess if they know just a little bit about you. Look for questions like the following:

  • What was the name of your first stuffed animal?
  • What is the name of a college you applied to but didn't attend?
  • What is the name of your favorite childhood teacher?
  • What was your favorite place to visit as a child?
  • What are the last 5 digits of your driver's license number?

The stipulation here is to pick questions that aren’t easily identifiable via items that are posted about you online. I’ve known my wife for over 10 years now, and we’ve been married for eight and I don’t think that she would know the answer to any of the above questions (assuming that I can remember the answers myself).

If you ever have any doubt about how public your Facebook information is, you can always see how your profile looks to other people. To check that out:

  1. Log into Facebook and click on your name in the upper left corner 
  2. In the middle of the page, near Update Info and Activity Log, click the gear icon and select View As.

This will show you what the Public can see about your page. Make sure that when you’re selecting secret questions or picking your latest password, that the information seen here won’t be a dead giveaway.

Hopefully following these quick guidelines will help you keep your information safe and out of the hands of people who might use it to bring you harm.