Skip to main content

Privacy and Safety Online

This is real off the cuff and I have no plans to give any kind of citations. If you feel I can't give you any useful advice based on firsthand experience and personal opinion and you want a bunch of links to a bunch of studies, then this is not the post for you.

Hopefully, some of this is generally useful to anyone, but it is being written by a woman and based on years and years of trying to sort my personal crap out because I have a long history of being a walking, talking train wreck waiting to happen. I've worked really hard to reduce the online drama that tends to swirl around me and, so far, it hasn't turned into genuine real life drama (of the "need to call the police" variety -- that doesn't mean there haven't been some real world impacts).

So I think I know a thing or three that might be helpful.

Loose Lips Sink Ships

That's a military saying. I've never been in the military, but I've had relatives who were career military.

Due to the influence of military culture on my life, I used to have kind of an on/off switch for information security. I felt like either I should never, ever, ever mention it at all, not even once or I could just talk about it to my heart's content anytime, all the time.

The first part of that is not a bad policy for some things. If you don't want it out there, don't ever say it. Period.

Stalkers are known to keep files on people. If you say it once and unbeknownst to you someone has an unhealthy level of interest in you, it may go into a file and now that info is out there and could come back to haunt you in myriad ways.

Even if you are bizarrely fortunate to never meet anyone who sometimes crosses that line, even if they are otherwise mostly normal and sane, maybe at some point you will start getting more attention. If you suddenly become some level of "more internet famous," things you said when no one cared who in heck you were may get dug up and you may now have headaches you don't know how to deal with.

Learning Curves

If you are still a big fat nobody and learning how this works, one best practice is to take a gamble under circumstances where you have control over redacting it. Learn what the edit and deletion policies are for the online spaces where you hang and err on the side of "Don't say it where I can't remove it myself if I'm not one million percent certain I can live with that for all eternity and don't care if millions of people see it."

If you say it in spaces where you control it and you don't like the reaction to it, you can remove it. No, that won't necessarily entirely clean up the mess. There are assholes everywhere and they may have taken a screenshot or just be willing to point out "You said BLAH and then you removed it!"

Sometimes removing things backfires, but sometimes removing it and then refusing to engage further is the least worst course of action that will help it die down so you can move on.

Wrinkles in the Fabric of the Space-Time Continuum

The biggest thing I had to learn to manage my online life effectively is that saying a thing gets different amounts and kinds of attention on it in different contexts and how to use that fact to my advantage instead of constantly feeling blindsided by feeling either ignored or flooded with negative attention.

This involves a more nuanced understanding of how to interact with the internet than my idea of an on/off switch of information. It's more like deciding between a trickle and firehose and various other settings in between for various different contexts.

Sometimes, it's okay to turn that firehose on. Sometimes, you need to intentionally tamp it down to a trickle without simply turning it off because not replying at all can be worse than replying briefly and carefully.

For the sake of example: Let's say you are Christian and you are a scientist. There's no reason you have to deny being Christian, but you should be mindful of not wearing that on your sleeve overly much in "sciency" parts of your internet life.

So the way you might handle that is you might mention at times that you happen to be Christian, but you don't go on at length constantly about your religion in "sciency" places.

This is where it helps to have more nuance than my original mental model of an on/off switch. No, it doesn't work well to just talk for pages about X anytime, anywhere because some random internet stranger asked a question about it.

It's okay for a lot of things to sometimes say something like "Yes, I'm Christian." and leave it at that without detailing your religious beliefs, how often you attend church and on and on.


If you are a woman on the internet, it's generally useful to err on the side of not talking online about what kind of people you date, what your sexual preferences are, etc. This goes double if you are straight because straight men tend to err on the side of relating to women as nothing but "date material" and it will tend to attract a lot of interest in trying to casually hook up with you.

If you are a woman who likes hooking up with men casually, let me assure you that is not at all hard to arrange.

You know how a woman gets a man excited? She shows up.
(#NotAllMen, but enough of them for it to be a problem.)

Your quality of life will be higher if you don't wear it on your sleeve everywhere on the internet that you are available for casual hookups.

If you wear that on your sleeve, it will actively interfere with people engaging with you for any other reason. If you want more intellilgent conversation to take up the majority of your online life, then it's best to keep that part of your life more on the down-low.

Be extremely leery of people online being "friendly" and wanting to make small talk of the sort that might make perfect sense in person. (Actually, I'm also leery of guys asking invasive personal questions in person.)

Most people you meet via the internet are NOT your friend and will never really become such. People trying to make a PERSONAL connection with you when they barely know you are typically looking either for a casual hookup or to otherwise take advantage of you in some way.

Be extra super duper leery if they look up stuff on you and ask you a lot of questions but get upset and bail on you if you go "turn about's fair play," look up stuff on them and start asking them questions. Whatever it is they want, you can rest assured it doesn't involve some kind of mutually beneficial and equitable relationship based on real respect.

They have some kind of unhealthy and lurid interest in you and you shouldn't indulge it. It won't go good places.

For anyone on the internet, it's generally useful to think about what point you really want to make and how best to make it without giving too many unnecessary personal details. Maybe you know about X because of some personal experience, but if you don't really want a bunch of internet strangers to buttonhole you and ask a raftload of invasive questions and feel entitled to answers, it will typically be better to state it more neutrally and try to find an article or study to support your point.

Protecting Friends And Associates

Anytime you talk about your life, you may be casting light on private information of other people. Think twice before you tell cutesy anecdotes involving other people, especially if the story identifies who they are.

You don't have to give their name to identify them. If you use words like my spouse or my current boss, you have just clearly identified a specific person.

If it isn't essential to the story to identify your exact relationship to them, I highly recommend using more generic terminology like "a relative of mine" or "some guy I used to work with."

Obviously, some stories cannot be told in a meaningful and sensible fashion without directly or indirectly cluing people as to the nature of the relationship. In such cases, think twice about telling it at all, especially in some kind of "chatty" way while talking with people for funsies.

Even if the person you are talking with doesn't take it weird places, they aren't the only person who can read it. So be careful with that.

Be careful with talking too much about where you go and when you go there.

Rich or poor, be careful about giving out too many financial details (and think about ways people might read between the lines and accurately infer more than you intended to divulge).

When talking about anyone at all who is more famous than you or has more twitter followers or something, stop and think about how that could come back to bite you. Is this really something you really, truly need to say about that person BY NAME when it could mean that you will be inundated with hundreds or even thousands of replies from people who are their fans?

If you are okay with that, fine. I'm not saying you should never say anything meaningful.

Just be mindful that expressing your 2 cents via Twitter is not actually the same as shooting the shit around the dinner table with your family or over beers at the bar with friends. If you think it is, this can really come back to bite you.

Again: This is not intended as comprehensive. This is very off the cuff. Hopefully, a few people will get something out of it.

I will add that I am not dictating anything here. I am not judging you. If you have done your own A/B testing and are getting the results you want and your approach differs markedly from what's here, I'm not your mom. You don't need to justify anything to me.

If you have no idea what you are doing and wish someone would clue you, consider this to be "clues for the clueless." Or just food for thought for trying to add some new tools to your toolbox.

Popular posts from this blog

Sticky This: See a typo? Submit a pull request.

For the first time ever, I submitted a pull request yesterday to an open source project notifying them of a typo. It was accepted within hours. Submitting the pull request was easy and took almost no time. The process of submitting it gave me valuable prompts, such as "This field is typically no more than 50 characters." I've been on Hacker News for over eleven years. I began wondering how on earth I can contribute to open source as a non-coder a few years back. I've talked to other non-coders who were just as mystified as I was -- or more mystified -- as to how on earth you get into open source as a non coder. So, no, it isn't just me. I spent probably a few hours yesterday trying to sort out how on earth to notify them of their typo. It took me far, far longer to figure out what I needed to do than it took to do it. This is a huge barrier to entry and will stop most people before they begin. Most people simply can't give you three hours of their t

Me. Woodward Park, Fresno, CA. January 2016.