Maintaining Privacy as an Online Freelancer

Can the internet public know more about you than you would like?  According to an article at New Scientist, there’s a company that uses software to analyze blogs and forum posts to find out a blogger’s age, gender, and interests.  Web workers who are avid users of Twitter also let the public know what they’re up to most of the day.  Here at WWD, we also discussed the lack of privacy of the average web user when it comes to their browsing activity.

How do we maintain privacy when we work on such a public platform?

1023466_c_a_m_Separate your personal life and your work when it comes to online interaction. Any apps, blogs, or social networking accounts should be separate from your professional accounts.  Alternatively, you can categorize your contacts into separate groups, such as friends, family, business, and filter which types of updates are visible to each group.

This might seem time consuming, but you don’t want a diligent internet troll to start harassing your friends or playing with your holiday photos via Photoshop and sharing it with your clients.  You don’t want your friends and family to be too informed about your work either (I remember my mother seeing one of my clients on Facebook and asking me if she could go out with him). That may be far-fetched, but it’s not something I personally want to risk.

I keep a personal blog on some free blogging platforms – intended for close friends and family only.  Most of my posts are visible only to contacts I have approved.  My professional blog, of course, is free for the rest of the web to read.

Get a pseudonym. Web workers sometimes use nicknames, online screen names, or only their first names as their working name online.  This approach to getting more privacy seems to elicit a variety of reactions.  Some people are for it, while others don’t think it’s necessary, or they think it goes against the culture of transparency on the web.  Online workers such as Skellie, Adii Rockstar, and blogger John Cow (for a time) are just a few examples. You can also use an alias that sounds more like a “real name”.

A pseudonym can also be useful if you want to work on projects that aren’t relevant to the personal brand you’re building.  When I used to write about relationships and dating, it wasn’t something I was passionate about pursuing, so I used a variety of aliases for my work.  Only my clients knew my real name.

The downsides to working with a pseudonym, especially if it doesn’t sound like a “real name”, is that in some cases, it might lead to mistrust.  Still, this could be overcome once you’ve built a reputation on providing quality services.

Monitor your digital footprint. You can do a regular search of your name, pseudonyms, and other nicknames you use on the web.  If you want to automate this, you can simply use Google Alerts to keep up with any new searchable items relevant to your name.  Twitter Search, BackType Alerts, and FriendFeed Search also allow you to search any keyword within their services.

Check the privacy settings and privacy policy of every new app, social network, or online service you’re using. This may sound like common sense, but it’s something that many people neglect.  Call me paranoid, but I tend to check my privacy settings on social networking accounts every few months or so.  Sometimes they add new features or change something and it affects the initial settings I established.

Mike Gunderloy also wrote about the terms and conditions of online office applications, which had interesting points about privacy.  On a related note, the Pew Internet Project conducted a survey on cloud computing with the following results:

…cloud users show high levels of concern when presented with scenarios in which companies might use their data for purposes users may or may not fully understand ahead of time.  This suggests user worry over control of the information they store online.  For nearly all of the scenarios shown, most users of cloud applications say they would be very concerned if their data were sold, used in marketing campaigns, not deleted as requested, or used for targeted ads.

Source: “Use of Cloud Computing Applications and Services”, September 2008, Pew Internet & American Life Project

How about you, how concerned are you with your privacy as a web worker?  How do you manage your digital footprints?  What experiences have you had with online privacy?

Image by Dan Shirley from sxc.hu

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