A friend working in the murky world of Westminster politics once gave me some very sound advice: “Don’t send an email if you wouldn’t be happy seeing its contents printed in the Daily Mail.” Advice which applies equally to just about every form of electronic communication in the internet age, advice which urges you to think twice before you hit send or upload that passing thought or picture.
Advice which Rebecca Leighton, arrested in connection with a series of deaths at Stepping Hill Hospital in Greater Manchester, might now wish someone had given her before she found her life splashed across the pages of this morning’s newspapers.
My first reaction on reading the coverage of the 27-year-old nurse’s arrest was this: Who in their right mind leaves their social network profiles open to the public? Haven’t there been enough scare stories about privacy in the age of Facebook to make people at least think about what they are sharing online?
But even those people who have taken the time to set some level of privacy protection might not have given ample thought to the setting they have chosen. Many users have hundreds or even thousands of ‘friends’ on Facebook, so by choosing to share their online information with ‘friends of friends’ they are leaving themselves open to potentially hundreds of thousands of people – hardly what I would call privacy.
The fact is nothing we record online is truly private, whatever the people behind sites such as Facebook and Google may like us to believe. If vast databases of financial information can be hacked then I think it’s fair to say someone could find a way to access your holiday snaps.
I limit my number of ‘friends’ on Facebook relatively strictly for two reasons. Firstly, because frankly no one in this world really gives a damn about my holiday photos, and secondly because I want to restrict as tightly as possible the number of people exposed to the aspects of my ‘private’ life that I do decide to share online.
But even then it’s got to be common sense to think twice about those things you do share on sites like Facebook and Twitter, as Anthony Weiner and Jason Manford would undoubtedly testify. That throwaway remark about your boss after a hard day in the office? That photo of yourself, a little worse for drink, in a compromising position? Better think twice before you hit enter and commit it to the digital record.
It may be too late for Rebecca Leighton, but here’s a simple way to look at it: If you are murdered/arrested/hit by a bus tomorrow, what will be in the next morning’s papers after your Facebook has been trawled by the hacks covering the story? Sobering thought? Well this video might be a good place to start:
Just an hour after publishing this, I came across this interesting piece from the NYT about social media background checks being used in the vetting of potential employees. Just one more reason to think carefully about the digital footprint you leave behind online.