Stay safe in a world of apps and social networks

We use Facebook to share photos with friends, Twitter to tell people what’s on our mind and FourSquare to ‘check in’ to our favourite places, but are we sharing too much information via social networking sites?

Furthermore, given the news that Facebook has launched its own app store, are we at risk of having our personal data released to the wider world without our consent or knowledge? And are we leaving ourselves open to security breaches from viruses and Trojan horses  simply by downloading apps?

Here we take a look at all of these issues and ways in which we can limit such security risks and keep our details private – or as private as the social networks will allow!

How private is your personal data?

The rise of the smartphone has revolutionised the ways in which we use social networking sites as we can now instantly share details and pictures of what we are doing, where we are doing it and who we are doing it with.

However, amid fears that a growth in mobile use could impact on advertising revenue, Facebook has launched its own app store – the slightly clinical sounding ‘App Center’ –  to promote mobile programmes that operate using its network (for instance, apps such as the insanely popular Draw Something).

The Facebook app store will work in much the same way the Apple and Android app stores do – developers will be able to charge a fee for any apps sold.

Where it differs from other app stores is that developers will also be given access to information that you have made public as part of your profile. Or, rather, information that you have not made private, as restrictive privacy settings are rarely the default.

This means that any pictures you have uploaded or any personal details you have on your profile, such as date of birth and place of work, could be made available to a wider audience without you knowing about it.

You can, however, manage the amount of information that third parties are privy to by adjusting your account and privacy settings via the tab in the drop down menu at the top right of your Facebook profile page. By adjusting these settings you can limit who sees status updates, photos and tags and you can also modify the settings for ads, apps, games and websites.

However, the best way to maintain privacy is to try not to share too much personal information online, and this extends to direct messages and even emails.

One particular cautionary tale I have is regarding the personalised ads on Google’s Gmail service as I mentioned something about a fork lift truck in an email to a friend and the next time I logged on to my Gmail account I was met greeted with an advert for forklift truck hire!

It’s not quite time to run for the hills wearing a tin helmet but you should always keep in mind that even the most private correspondences may not be quite so private.

Social network security risks

An invasion of privacy is not the only concern surrounding social networking sites and having advertisers mine your profile data pales into insignificance when compared with the threat of identity theft and fraud.

That is why you should be aware that criminals will use social networking sites to spread malware and access your personal data much in the same way that they will use phishing emails and ‘free download’ pop-ups.

So, just as you might get a ‘phishing’ email asking you to click on a link to verify your bank details, you could receive an invitation to open a fraudulent app that would then install a Trojan horse on your system and steal data from your computer.

Twitter users should also be vigilant as a common hack on Twitter accounts comes via a Tweet or direct message from someone you are following urging you to click on a link. However, this link will then hack into your account and send the same message to your followers or, even worse, embed itself on your system and steal personal data.

While it is unlikely that there will be any malware attached directly to any apps that you download – particularly from the iTunes as Apple tends to keep a tight rein on its output – privacy and security concerns have been raised around the in-app ads placed by third-parties to generate extra revenue.

Some of these ads use GPS to track your location to give you targetted ads but in doing so they offer a way for hackers to bypass any existing security you may have on your device.

How to stay safe online

The best way to keep your system free from viruses and Trojan horses is to make sure that your anti-virus software is kept up to date as this will detect and warn you of the presence of any malware, or suspected malware.

In addition, your anti-virus software will also do a sweep of your computer and remove any files it considers to be harmful.

You should also do a manual check on your system and get rid of any old cookies or programmes that, although not harmful, may be slowing your computer down.

If you have received an email or direct message asking you to disclose any personal information then you should immediately discard it as it is likely to be a fraudulent email.

You need to exercise a bit of common sense in some instances and trust your gut feeling but also check the URL that the email is directing you to. Check for thing like spelling mistakes or clumsy language as these can give away fraudulent emails.

If you are downloading apps then try to ensure they are from trusted developers and it’s probably best not to click on any ads or pop-ups that appear either.

When shopping online make sure you only enter personal details on sites that carry a small padlock icon in the web browser frame (not on the actual web page) and have an address that begins https:// as this denotes that the site is secure and your details are safe from third parties.

If your children go online then be sure that you have set the parental controls so they cannot visit any unsuitable sites. Also make sure that your credit card details are not stored on sites where they can use them to make online purchases, for instance, in an app store or even in an app itself (read here for more on the dangers of 'bait apps').

Parental control settings can normally be adjusted via your computer's ‘control panel’ which can be accessed via the ‘start’ menu on a Windows PC, or by choosing 'system preferences' on a MAC operating system. 

Things may also be about to get a little easier for parents too as the government is looking at proposals to make unsuitable content (such as pornographic material) only accessible via an ‘opt-in’ system.

Stay safe in the real world too

Although online security risks are the main concern, you should also keep in mind that posting personal details on social networking sites can also carry some ‘real world’ security risks too.

For instance, if you post photos of your house and things inside your house then criminals will easily be able to identify where you live, particularly if you give them a further heads up by including details of your home location.

If you use also applications like FourSquare or ‘check in’ to places using Facebook or tell the world of your whereabouts on Twitter then you’re also letting these criminals know when you’re not at home, and you can probably work out the rest…

And although this is an unlikely scenario - unless you happen to have pictures posted that show you have an original Rembrandt hanging in the hallway - it is still worth bearing in mind (as is ensuring you have adequate home insurance).

As a general rule of thumb, if you want your personal details to remain private, don’t put them on social networking sites where they run the risk of being made public.

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