I just saw something scary. I was researching some possible platform building forums for a client when I ran across one that made me cover my face with my hands and shake my head. There on the page, visible to everyone—whether they were members of the forum or not—was a woman who had posted details about herself, her family and her kids as part of this online community. Interspersed with the text were pictures of each of her five kids, labeled with their names and ages. This was signed with her full name, city and state of residence. I scraped my jaw up off of the floor and, on a whim, I went digging into her past posts. I found details about her kids’ personalities, food preferences, school—the list goes on and gets even scarier.
All I could think of was that this was a 6 o’clock news horror story just waiting to break. What would the headline be? “Identity Theft Strikes Small-Town America?” “Pedophile Uses Women’s Internet Forum to Kidnap Child?” Or maybe 25 years from now when her kids are adults and trying to get jobs, “College Grad Denied Job Due to Sordid Internet Past.”
As writers we constantly walk the fine line on the Internet. On the one hand, we need to be personable. We have to build our platforms and nurture our followings so we can land book deals and sell our work. We also conduct business on the web. We have to be contactable. On the other hand, too much information can hurt us in ways that we can only imagine. The trick is to present just enough information so that you come across as a human being without giving away so much that a predator can take advantage of you.
The key thing with the Internet, including email, is remembering that nothing is private. Even if it’s password protected or the hosting company assures you that it’s not accessible publicly. If the information left your possession and is sitting on someone else’s computer, it’s not private anymore. It will be floating around in the electronic world forever—or until computers are replaced with some other media. Even a change in media hasn’t stopped organizations from scanning their old books and records and making them available online.
Information on the web gets archived. Some web sites are dedicated to this. One such scary place is Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (http://www.archive.org/web/web.php). There are copies of web sites on there dating back to 1996. I’ve found cached copies of short stories I posted on my website 10 years ago—and let’s not discuss the design travesty of my early efforts in html programming. The point is that the internet is now and has always been about sharing information and it does a great job of it. You need to make sure that the information it shares about you is the information you want it to share.
So what can you do? If you’re writing under a pen name, you’re in good shape as long as your publisher or your local writers’ association doesn’t advertise you reading under your pen name on their web site, thus linking your real name to your pen name. (John Smith reading his original fiction under the pen name Isaac Oglethorpe. This has happened.)
If you’re using your legal name, you have a tougher time of it. Here are some things to avoid posting to the web:
- Street address
- Home phone number
- Genealogical data
- Your kids’ names and ages
- Your date of birth and the dates and places of birth of your family
Do I need to tell you to keep your social security number, drivers’ license number and bank account information in paper form only in a locked safe in your home? It is possible to be a friendly, real person without giving away the farm. Just think before you post.
Every author I’ve ever spoken to about Internet security and privacy has asked about copyrights. I am not a lawyer and this should not be confused with legal advice. The Internet is effectively no different from the print world as far as copyright laws go. If a copyright notice is not present on a page, it does not necessarily mean that the author has waived their rights. This is something for you to keep in mind about using pictures you’ve found on the web. Same thing applies: If the photographer has not expressly given permission to use the image, you must assume it is under copyright.
What’s different about the Internet and copyright is that it’s so much easier to lift text and images off of the electronic media and reuse it, and the volume is so great that there’s a good chance no one will ever know. So when it comes to your writing, assume that it is now effectively public domain as soon as you post it on the web and you’ll never be disappointed. Just track down people who haven’t given you proper credit and demand credit and a link to your site. You can use this longevity to your advantage. Write things that you intend to be passed around and your name will be passed around with them.
I’m curious. Has anyone have stories about internet security? Has someone used your data from the web? What places are the worst offenders for getting people to post sensitive information? I want to hear your comments.
Originally posted on my hosted WordPress Blog, October 28, 2007.