But social networks are amazing and terrifying in equal measure. You can reach thousands of people worldwide with a single Twitter update, but cybercriminals can use the same tools to pick the perfect victim.
It's impossible to remain completely anonymous while you're using social media--anonymity would defeat the point--but every network has a few key, commonly overlooked privacy settings that take only minutes to set up and drastically improve the security of your shared data.
For this article, I rounded up the three most important privacy settings you should be using, but probably aren't, on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram. Five minutes of setup now could avert hours of social embarrassment and identity recovery down the road.
Lock down Facebook
Facebook not only revolutionized the way we communicate but also spawned the Facebook Fret: that uncomfortable moment before every blind date, extended-family gathering, and job interview when you worry about whether anyone has noticed the embarrassing Christmas-party video your friend tagged you in on Facebook a few years back.
Limit who can find you: Stop worrying and make sure your Facebook profile stays private by clicking the blue gear in the top-right corner of the Facebook website and selecting Privacy Settings. From there, the best thing you can do is make it harder for strangers to find your Facebook profile in the first place by blocking search engines from linking to your profile and limiting who can look up your profile using the email address and phone number you gave to Facebook.
Limiting access to Friends ensures that only people with whom you've already made a connection will be able to search for you using your email address and phone number. But since someone isn't likely to search Facebook in that manner unless they're specifically seeking to get in touch with someone, it's probably a good idea to grant lookup access to Friends of Friends. That way, you can get some mileage out of Facebook's social network by connecting with people your friends trust.
Stop posting in public: Your next stop on the Facebook Privacy Settings to-do list is the 'Who can see my stuff?' section of the Privacy Settings menu. Make sure the 'Who can see your future posts?' option is set to Friends.
Facebook allows you to change content visibility on a post-by-post basis. You can, for example, create status updates that are publicly available or visible only to two or three specific people. But the smartest option is making post visibility friends-only by default, mitigating the damage of any potentially humiliating photos you might upload after a late-night escapade.
Retroactively, you can privatize your Facebook profile by visiting the Limit Past Posts link and clicking the Limit Old Posts button to ensure that all the content you've already shared becomes private to your friends only. One caveat, though: If you ever tag anyone in a Facebook update, your tagged content will show up on that person's Timeline, and thus will be exposed according to their personal privacy settings.
Lock down your Timeline: Finally, take a moment to safeguard against the threat of embarrassing photos or video popping up in your Timeline without your knowledge by fine-tuning Facebook's Timeline Review.
Go to the Timeline and Tagging Settings menu (if you're still in the Privacy Settings menu, you can find the other settings menus on the left side of the screen). Now that you're reviewing your Timeline Settings, scroll down and turn the option titled 'Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline' to On.
The three simple changes described above will go a long way toward improving your Facebook privacy, but a bunch of other potentially useful privacy settings are scattered throughout Facebook's Account Settings menus. Take the time to read through them. Facebook is one of the biggest social networks on the planet, and knowing how to control your information is the best way to control how the world views you.
Tidy up Twitter
Because Twitter is a bare-bones communication service for exchanging photos, videos, and short text messages, it doesn't give you many opportunities to share private data inadvertently. But although you remain responsible for the lion's share of the data in your feed, Twitter still has a few potential privacy leaks that you can quickly plug.
Don't link Twitter to Facebook: First, you should probably unlink your Twitter account from Facebook and any other social networks. Not only is it risky to have your Twitter username popping up in your Facebook timeline--and thus being associated with real-world Facebook information such as your name, location, or employment history--it's also really annoying for your Facebook friends.
Unless you're a small-business owner or a minor celebrity trying to spread information across multiple social networks at once, keep your Twitter account separate from your other social media platforms. Simply log in to Twitter, click the gray gear icon in the top-right corner of the screen, and make your way to the Profile section of the Settings menu. Scroll down to the Facebook section, and you'll see the option to disconnect your Facebook account from Twitter for good.
Turn off geotagging: Second, turn off Twitter's geotagging system to ensure that you aren't including your location in every update. Sure, it's a neat feature, but at best it merely affords you a geographical record of where you've tweeted. At worst, geotagging creates a public record of your physical location in real time, making it easy for malefactors to track your movements and use that data for evil.
Twitter disables location sharing by default, but you should still double-check this status. Enter your account settings and uncheck the Add a location to my Tweets option. While you're there, click the Delete all location information setting for good measure.
Go private: Finally, consider setting your Twitter profile to private. It's simple enough to do--just enter your account settings and check the box next to Protect my tweets--and it ensures that your updates aren't publicly visible. This setting affords you much greater control over where your updates go because your followers can't retweet you, and new followers have to request your permission before Twitter will allow them to start following you.
Get your Google+ profile in order
Google's surprisingly popular social network does interesting things with privacy controls. By baking selective sharing right into the network itself, it forces you to stop and think about what you're sharing every time you post an update. For this, we can thank Google's "circles" conceit: One circle, for instance, can include only family members, while another can be just for coworkers. The bottom line is that you get to define exactly which circles of trust see which particular updates.
It's a clever approach to privacy control, but Google+ still has a few potential issues that are easy to address if you know where to look.
Limit who can find you: First and foremost, remove your Google+ profile from being listed in Google search results. It's the simplest way to increase your privacy and instantly reduce the number of fake accounts adding you to their circles and spamming your inbox with ads. To keep your profile private, log in to Google+, open Account Settings, and then scroll down to the Profile section and uncheck the box that says Help others discover my profile in search results.
Lock down your profile: Google+ lets you assign individual privacy levels for every piece of data on your profile, but that requires you to dive into the ocean of data that is your Google+ profile. To do so, select the Profile and privacy menu from the left-hand navigation pane, and click the button that says Edit visibility on profile.
Google+ will walk you through the long process of selecting privacy levels for every aspect of your Google+ profile--age, location, education, and so on. It takes a few minutes, but it's a great way to run through everything you're sharing online and to determine what to keep public and what to keep private. I prefer to keep most of my Google+ profile private, sharing only with people I have in my circle of friends, but your privacy needs may be different.
Disable photo tagging: Next, scroll down to the Photos section and make sure to uncheck the options to allow Google to display geolocation data with your photos. Also confirm that nobody but your most trusted circles can tag you in their posts. Both features are cool, but they could result in distressing breaches of privacy (when exes tag you in photographs, for example) and even bring snoopers right to your doorstep.
Keep Instagram private
I love Instagram, because all my friends use it to share snapshots of their daily lives. Presumably Facebook loves Instagram for the same reason, since it bought the mobile-focused photo-sharing service for a cool chunk of change last year and is now mining the vast Instagram user base for valuable data.
Go private: Practice safe sharing on Instagram by opening the Instagram app--you can't do much on the Instagram website except look at pictures--and entering your account settings menu by tapping the blue gear icon in the top-right corner of the profile screen. The most important thing you can do is make your Instagram account private by switching the Photos Are Private option to On. As on Twitter, this setting will keep your Instagram updates from being publicly visible, and will require you to approve new followers before they can see your photos.
Limit automatic sharing on Facebook: Next, open the Share Settings menu and give your social network sharing settings a once-over to confirm that everything meets with your approval. Pay particular attention to your Facebook sharing settings, and consider switching off automatic photo sharing altogether.
If you want to continue posting Instagram photos to Facebook, be sure to set those posts to private automatically by logging in to the Facebook website and navigating to the App Settings menu. From there, find the entry for Instagram and click Edit, and then choose your preferred privacy level from the drop-down menu next to 'Visibility of app and posts'. I like to keep my Instagram photos set to friends-only by default, but your mileage may vary.
Audit your authorized apps: Last but not least, do a quick privacy audit to see which apps have access to your Instagram account. Instagram makes its API publicly available, and lots of great third-party applications out there can access your photos to help you make cards, websites, magnets, and more. But this arrangement also means that those services can pull your images and make them publicly available on image indexers such as Google Images.
If you aren't using those services for anything, disable their access to your Instagram account by logging in via the Instagram website and accessing the Application Authorization section of your Account Settings page. Here you'll see a list of every application currently accessing your Instagram account, and you can revoke access on an individual basis by clicking the blue Revoke Access button in the top-right corner of every listing.
This story, "12 simple steps to safer social networking" was originally published by PCWorld.