Guest Blogger: Leaving Bits and Pieces of Our Information Online for Anyone to Find

29 Aug

Today I welcome Allison Gamble to The Writers Forensics Blog. She will discuss Cyber Safety. Welcome, Allison.

It’s no secret that the Internet is a treasure trove of information, nor is the fact that personal information is readily available for sale. What may surprise some, however, is the fact that many seemingly innocent tidbits from your personal life not only find their way online, but can be used by criminals to steal your identity, your boss to profile your work ethic, and even criminal courts in the event that you are accused of a crime. Being aware of what you shouldn’t put online and how what you do post can be used against you is the first step in protecting your identity, your career, and your good name.

The Basics

Obviously, most people know that you shouldn’t publish your social security number online. That’s just asking for trouble. However, how many would think that an innocent update to Facebook such as “Party at my place. Today’s my 26th b-day!” could be used to steal your identity? Yet, it could. CBS Money Watch compiled a list of six things you should never post on Facebook (or anywhere). Among them are your birthday, your vacation plans, your address, your workplace confessions, and any items that can be used as password clues (such as your favorite author, mom’s maiden name, and your first pet). Also, revealing risky behaviors such as drinking, drug abuse, or sexual promiscuity could wind up costing you a job or put your life or property at risk.

All of these things might seem obvious, and yet people post them everyday. Far from just revealing information about your identity, these items can also reveal a lot to your boss or any investigator worth his psychology degree. If you flaunt a binge drinking episode and have your boss as a Facebook friend, be prepared for a serious reckoning at work on Monday. If you’ve posted your fantasies of beating up someone, only to become suspect number one if that person is assaulted, don’t be surprised. Social media and blogs are being used more and more by everyone from employers to courts in order to profile individuals, make hiring decisions, and support convictions.

Using Social Media to Track Behavior

It turns out social media actually offer a pretty reliable window on our personalities and lives, making it increasingly important to be careful of what one posts online. A recent study by University of Texas at Austin psychologist Sam Gosling shows that Facebook profiles, far from presenting an idealized virtual image of an individual, provide an accurate picture of an individual’s motivations and personality.

Among the findings of the study, researchers discovered that the personalities of extroverts were easiest to detect. They also found that neuroticism remains difficult to detect except in face-to-face interactions.

What this tells us is that psychologists, and the general public, can use web postings to learn a great deal about an individual. For instance, posting “Party at my place. Today’s my 26th b-day!” doesn’t just provide an identity thief with the date and year of your birth. It provides the psychologist with insight into your personality — in this case, that you are an extrovert.

Additional Concerns

Cyber-bullying has become increasingly common, and in an effort to understand the psychological factors contributing to the behavior, psychologists have studied records of communication and conducted interviews with both cyber-bullies and their victims. They have been interested in a specific type of behavior: online bullying via social media. Cyber-bullying is often an easier form of bullying to perpetrate because it doesn’t involve face-to-face interaction. The old adage that all bullies are cowards seems particularly apropos here, but what research actually indicates to psychologists is that cyber-bullies are highly reactionary. In other words, when something happens to anger them, rather than stopping to contemplating proactive solutions cyber-bullies lash out at easy victims.

Another area in which social media is defining how people are perceived is the employment sector. Employers have taken a tough stance on social media use as well, with the result that what you say online can cost you a job. Look at the case of waitress Ashley Johnson, who posted a complaint about a couple who ate at the restaurant where she worked only to be fired a week later. Apparently, she violated company policies by speaking disparagingly about customers and casting the company in a negative light. It’s possible that Johnson could find it difficult to get another job in the future because of the citation from her previous employer. Whether she might be viewed as impetuous or reactionary by a psychologist, she’ll probably be viewed as a risk by potential employers.

It’s important in today’s digitally mediated environment to carefully think about anything you wish to post before publishing it to the Web. While you might take down that Facebook update that criticizes your boss or that Tweet that advertises your late-night partying, as media reports about everyone from The Game to Representative Anthony Wiener reveal, once posted a mistake can last forever. Psychologists can learn much from what you post online, but so can your next door neighbor or a schoolmate you haven’t seen in fifteen years. Thinking carefully before you post is the only way to guard your good name and manage your online presence to ensure that you always appear at your best.

Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing.


3 responses to “Guest Blogger: Leaving Bits and Pieces of Our Information Online for Anyone to Find

  1. ccyager

    August 29, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Allison, I’ve wondered for sometime how prospective employers as well as current employers gain access to Facebook accounts. Some people keep their Facebook profiles totally public. I do not but restrict it only to friends. If someone I don’t know tries to friend me, I ignore them. So, I could envision a situation like this: a prospective employer tries to friend me, I ignore it, and I don’t get the job because I chose to keep my private life private. So, I think it’s not only being careful about what one posts, but also being careful about to whom one grants access to those posts. Is that true?


  2. Bridget Cagan Herron

    August 29, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Just a comment about Cyber Theft. Please go to and see if your information is out there. If so, scroll down to very bottom of the page to privacy and go from there to have your info removed. Thank you.


  3. Anonymous & curious

    September 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I was about to get the courage to do Facebook at last when this interesting reminder post got me back to my original attitude. I have noticed that if your picture is on Facebook it can often be pulled up by Googling for the given last name. Is that how these employers are finding people’s less than professional looking pictures? How do they know they have the right person when even uncommon names aren’t totally unique? Still, even though one avoids having one’s picture out there on Facebook if you went to college most of the universities now have one’s picture out there without one’s consent. Nice when looking at old friends but not so nice when worried about non-friends seeing one’s info and copying one’s picture as though their own.

    I read fairly regularly & I feel about the internet like Tom Lehrer’s proverbial Christian Scientist with appendicitis.

    Apparently some jobs aren’t to be had if they think you cannot operate online and then they use what is there against the prospective employees. I don’t think I want to go to work for those who are quite that snoopy into one’s private life; rather a sign they won’t let their employees have one wouldn’t you say? On the other hand, I do understand the temptation to research if the information is available.

    Thanks for the Spokeo tip.



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