For the last few years, I’ve been writing crime thrillers. Thinking in the head of a bad guy can be liberating. Not sure when these stories of mine will be published (the publishing industry really is a hurry-up-and-wait industry), but I keep pressing forward, and continue to write stories where the bad guys come after us in ways that we are all subject to.
I always wanted the novel to be a cautionary tale about oversharing on social media and the internet. The more I delve into various aspects of internet security, the more I get excited—and scared.
I'm excited, because I know exactly how my serial killer is finding his victims—how he's stalking them. And I also know how he has managed to elude capture for over twenty years. As the writer of this creepy tale, this is fantastic. However, it also scares me, because I'm consciously aware that there will be some sicko out there doing exactly what the bad guy in my story is doing.
I've decided to start this blog series on social media and internet security on my personal blog in the hopes that at least one person out there will take notice and start to examine their own practices. If my ramblings can save just one person from becoming the victim, then I'll be over the moon.
On the Editor's Blog on Black Wolf Editorial, I've discussed various aspects of internet security for years, but those posts have always been targeted toward writers building an online platform. Here, I intend to take an example, a loophole in the system, and explain how a bad guy might take advantage of the system, and how people just let it happen.
Let's start with one of my favorite social media platforms: Twitter.
Twitter accounts are typically public.
I’ll gladly admit that I’m a fan of Twitter (okay… Sometimes, I’m a fan of Twitter… That is when it’s not being a cesspit of toxicity). But one of the things that I like the most about Twitter is the fact that the character limits force me to think through exactly what I want to say, and force me to edit to tight sentences. I get it wrong from time to time, with typos sneaking in and multiple tweets needed to fully explain my rant, as much as I try to avoid it. However, communication on Twitter is quick and simple, and I have made some awesome contacts through my interactions on the platform.
Yet, Twitter, like all forms of social media, has a major flaw: it is too easy to post.
You take a photo and you want to share it with the world. You're excited. Rightly so. And you want to share that excitement with the world. Post that photo on Twitter, load the message with appropriate hashtags, and your message and photo are whizzing around the world in cyberspace. Instant likes and retweets, and your post is well and truly out there.
Because of the way Twitter works, accounts are typically public, meaning that anyone can see your tweets. They don't need to follow you. In fact, Twitter provides mechanisms for you to follow particular people without following them. I do it ALL the time.
You can create a private list, add anyone you want to that list, and you can easily see their tweets—and they have no clue that you're watching them.
Enter the stalker bad guy.
He sees a picture of someone who looks extremely attractive. He examines her feed. It seems innocent enough: frequent posts about her morning coffee in that Starbucks cup. She posts other information, like the baseball game she's going to with Random Date (who she had mentioned in her tweet by his Twitter handle). The bad guy clicks the link to the Random Date's profile to see pictures of his truck just after its spit-shine. There in the photo is the license plate.
Okay, creepy bad guy has been watching this unsuspecting victim for some time and has envisioned many a date with her—not that he's ever interacted with her. But he knows her daily routine just from her tweets.
From Random Date's profile, he has a license plate number. DMV records are publicly accessible. Just a little bit of cash, and you have someone's address. So now, the bad guy knows where Random Date lives.
Creepy bad guy has just progressed to the next level and has become a full-fledged stalker.
This particular scenario IS happening right now to countless number of men and women on social media. What's worse, they have no idea that it's happening. For many, it will never progress past voyeurism, but there will be the odd one who WILL discover the real dangers associated with oversharing on social media.
The real issue is NOT restricted to Twitter.
The scenario listed above, which is sadly a REAL situation out there, actually has nothing to do with the fact that Twitter is publicly accessible. Yes, this complicates the matter, but the same exact scenario I can guarantee is playing out on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and countless other social media platforms. The real issue is what people share.
The chick in the above scenario was frequently posting about her morning coffee from Starbucks. Sure, Starbucks can be found all around the world, one of the reasons why I chose to use them as an example here. But each store will be different. And if you combine this information with any location information shared about where this chick lives, one could probably narrow down exactly which Starbucks this chick frequents if you have enough time and patience—and the really scary bad guys always have enough time and patience.
To make matters worse, Coffee Chick is posting these morning coffee messages at roughly the same time every morning. A pattern exists, and the bad guy knows it.
She opened up her boyfriend to this fiend by tweeting about their date and tagging Random Date in the message or the photos. On Twitter, this is an easy link to follow, and another victim has just been created. Even on Facebook, the damage is done.
If you are tagged in a post or a photo on Facebook, everyone who can see any posts on your feed will instantly gain access to whatever that post/photo is. It doesn't matter if the other person is Friends with your Friends. Someone tags you, and EVERYONE from both sets of Friends lists can see the post. This can get nasty if that other person has a habit of making their posts public. (Don't even get me started with this one.)
But Coffee Chick is not the only one to blame for the nightmare that she is facing.
The chick's boyfriend made a massive mistake by posting a photo of his truck with the license plate number showing. DUDES, this is a FUBAR of epic proportions. As I said, DMV records are publicly accessible. In doing a little research, I've discovered that even I can place a few phone calls to the vehicle registration authority in New Zealand, and get an address for the person whom a particular vehicle is registered to. All it takes is time and a little cash—and I mean LITTLE cash, as in approximately $30.
With a little perseverance, time and money, the bad guy in the above scenario is making Coffee Chick and Random Date's lives a living hell.
AND THEY LET IT HAPPEN!
So, how can these two love birds protect themselves? Well, the first thing Coffee Chick needs to do is STOP posting about her morning coffee with clues as to WHERE she goes and when. Either change up the routine, so one struggles to find a pattern, or make things just a little more cryptic. Better yet, don't post those sorts of things at all.
Sure, she could turn her Twitter account into a private one, meaning that people have to follow her to actually see her posts, and she can reject followers if she want to, but on Twitter, what would be the point? In fact, on any social media platform, if Coffee Chick doesn't start making smart choices about what it is she is actually sharing with her followers, she's could be in BIG trouble if she isn't already.
Random Date needs to sanitize his account ASAP, removing ALL photos of his truck with his license plate showing. Remove any images with the letter box showing of the house. Remove ANYTHING that could give some creepy dude fuel for their stalker obsession.
It might actually be our past posts that are the most dangerous.
I want to shift this away from Coffee Chick and Random Date. Let's face it, they're screwed, and they don't even know it. For the moment, I want to shift this to something a little closer to home.
Recently, I ran a session with one of my writers' groups about internet security and social media. In preparation for that session, I reached out to one of my creepy contacts and had them do me a favor. I had them go through the personal profiles of particular people (namely the other writers in this particular writing group) and dig up whatever details they could by way of what was publicly available only. I knew they had access to more sinister means, but I just wanted to show the writers in my writers' group of the danger that they were putting themselves in, just because of the information they shared with the public. I wanted to scare them.
"Are you near your computer? Because we need to lock your account down NOW!"
Not only did my creepy contact manage to find her home address (el idiottee, had posted a photo of mail SHOWING her address!), but my creepy contact was able to get information about where her children go to school, where she works, where her husband works, and everything else needed to make her life a living hell.
To say that I was terrified for her was an understatement.
I talked her through the process, and we had that baby locked down tighter than a drum within a matter of minutes. She knew she was making mistakes, but she thought she had cleaned things up. But when I was able to relay the information about where her children go to school, that was the only fuel needed to spur her into action. Her children mean everything to her, and she holds no delusions about what creeps out there could do to them.
We all make mistakes.
Nobody is perfect. Even my own feeds probably have a little too much information about my personal life. Hell, I've had to sanitize my own feeds, because of images I posted in my excitement in my younger years, when I was still new to this whole social media thing.
I'm not trying to scare anyone into disappearing from the internet worlds altogether, because I believe that would be career suicide if I did. No, all I want to do is to make people start thinking before they post those photos and other details.
Do you really need to share every aspect of your life? Does that image contain ANY information that could lead to a living nightmare if it finds the wrong hands?
I write stories where the bad guy is using social media to stalk their victims. I can guarantee that somewhere in the world, a REAL bad guy is doing just that. Don't make it easy for them.
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great article. i hope you write about fb and ig as well. can you suggest how we can lock down our private pages?
Yes, I’ll be going into bad-guy mode on Facebook and Instagram too. However, if you want to take steps to protect yourself now, I have written a significant amount about the various security setting on Facebook on the Editor’s Blog on Black Wolf Editorial Services. Facebook: Is it time to panic? is that latest in a long list of articles that you can find there.
I will be sharing this with some of my students when we discuss internet safety! Thank you!
That is awesome! It’s the new ones coming up into the world of social media who are actually at the greatest risk. They have grown up with this world, it’s in the movies, but they don’t see the danger, because they’ve never had to think the way I do.
You might want to share with this the tips found in Facebook: Is it time to panic? over on the Editor’s Blog on Black Wolf Editorial Services. The article might have Facebook in the title, but it really is filled with generic information about the little steps we can take to protect ourselves on the internet.