Social Media Is Dangerous—In Different Ways Than You Might Think

Overly anxious parents have been making the news lately in light of an online viral sensation called “Momo.” From stay-at-home moms to celebrities, people around the world were panicked about their children’s safety, encouraging fellow parents to stay vigilant and monitor their internet use. While Momo turned out to be a hoax, the advice is solid—the internet contains very real dangers for online users of all ages. Some of those risks are more obvious than others. Which ones are you keeping in mind?

Personal Information: Emma’s mother posts on her Facebook timeline, “Happy birthday to my beautiful daughter! Can’t believe you came into the world 17 years ago, it feels like yesterday!”

While birthday wishes are common on social media, these posts provide a wealth of information to anyone looking to steal your identity. With one post, Emma’s mother has revealed her daughter’s day, month, and year of birth—and depending on her own privacy settings, her maiden name may be available as well.

When someone is seeking to exploit your passwords, even your directory of friends can put you at risk. Friend directories that are viewable to a public audience allow for bad actors to uncover family members, spouses, maiden names, and other information that may easily help them retrieve your password or answer security questions. Combine all this with a cellphone number and a newly purchased SIM card, and you might even be able to work your way into someone’s mobile account.

Privacy Settings: Aisha’s Facebook is set to public. She has had an account since she was 12, and has appeared in photos on her parents’ accounts since she was born.

“Stranger danger” is the most obvious risk associated with public profiles, with the potential for cyberbullying, extortion, and worse. But less-discussed risks involve the impacts of making data available online for so long.

The Facebook “10-year challenge” involved uploading personal photos from 10 years ago and today, in order to highlight the differences between the two. While companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram scrub data from images that are uploaded, they still initially receive metadata from each post or photo. In other words, Facebook gets to keep the details from your photo—details that can include geo-coordinates, time of capture, and time of posting. Even the most benign picture from the 10th grade can provide a bad actor with useful information to commit identity fraud or theft.

Another aspect that should be considered are the emotional and social consequences of preserving a child’s entire life online. Posting a video of your child’s first steps may seem natural, but once information appears online, it never disappears. Before you post a photo of your child in the bath, think about what their adult self might say.

Geo-Tagging/Location Data: Kyle geo-tags his Instagram post at “Aspen” on New Year’s Eve. The caption reads: “Last run with Mom and Dad!”

You’ve probably already been warned about posting while on vacation—doing so can alert criminals that your home is empty or unguarded. But it’s not just criminals who are looking at your feed.

Online photos of travel and vacations help me as an analyst understand a subject’s wealth, interests, and habits. If I scrolled through Kyle’s Instagram and noticed that every New Year’s Eve, he posted a photo that involved him on a mountain covered in snow, that would tell me a lot about him and his family. For example, it may be reasonable to assume that they go on a ski trip every year—from there I can make inferences about their finances. From there, I can begin to piece together more details based on comments, likes, and tags.

Home Photos: Owen posts a photo of the new car he received. The photo is taken in the driveway, with the garage in the background.

Posting about his new car could make Owen a target for theft or vandalism, but his photo may be risky in more ways than one.

Photos that include your house can by used by criminals to plot out a plan of attack. Windows, doors, and garages are all points of entry that can be exploited, and even minor details can give a crook the upper hand. For instance, a photo with your front door in the background might include your security system. By researching that system, a criminal may figure out ways to disable or disarm it.

Instagram and Facebook aren’t the only accounts you should keep an eye on. VSCO accounts are becoming increasingly popular as supplemental accounts. Often the privacy settings are purposefully lax, as it is a photography focused app designed for a large viewing audience. Instagram users, even those who make their profiles private, frequently include links to VSCO accounts in their Instagram bios.

Internet hoaxes and pranks will probably always be around. Rather than simply causing a laugh, their existence should also remind you of the larger dangers that could hurt you or your family. Knowledge is power—make sure you’re not giving that power to the wrong people.

Dan is an Analyst in Prescient’s Cyber Practice. He has a background in security and a degree in Arabic & International Studies from Ohio State.