The internet can bring you a lot of joy, but it can also turn into a world of pain the moment you make one stupid mistake. Perhaps you've been feeding the trolls, using "password" as your password, or selling your soul for access to a "free" web app. Your dumb mistakes can come back to bite you in the arse if you aren't careful. Here's how you can save yourself from yourself online.Title image remixed from an original by Konstantin Maslak (Shutterstock).
Stupid Thing #1: You Undervalue Your Personal Data
Most of the web has the appearance of being free, but when you sign up for Google services or a Facebook account you're potentially handing over a much more valuable commodity: your personal information. Companies want this information because it can be used to target more relevant ads to you. The more relevant the ads, the more likely you're going to buy. Although advertisements aren't necessarily all bad, and it's often preferable to see ads for things we actually want, it can be a little disconcerting and embarrassing when you do a search for herpes treatments and see nothing but Valtrex ads for a week. You shouldn't stop using the services you love just because they have a hidden cost, but it's important to understand that free services aren't really free. You are paying with your right to privacy, and that can feel a little invasive.
Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. If you don't like targeted ads based on your search history, you can just utilise your browser's Do Not Track options (read this to learn how to enable them). Facebook now offers lots of ways to set the level of privacy you want to maintain, which is great, but with all the options it can be tough to get just the way you want. Our guide to managing your Facebook privacy can get you up to speed. One of the first things you should do with Facebook is prevent apps from using your personal data as much as possible. Signing up for an app can provide the developers with much more information than you may realise as the apps will take information they don't necessarily need. To find out what each app is doing and limit its reach, just click the downward-facing triangle in the upper-right hand corner of your Facebook page and choose "Account Settings". From there click the Apps tab and click the "Edit" link next to any app. You'll see a list of what it is allowed to do plus the information it can access. Some stuff will be required for the app to function, but you'll almost always find something that isn't. Click the "Remove" link to revoke the app's permission to access that information.
Stupid Thing #2: You Submit Sensitive Information Over An Insecure Connection
When you submit sensitive information -- like your credit card number or login credentials -- over an insecure connection, it's not necessarily your fault. Websites worth their salt need to use HTTPS, rather than HTTP, in order to transfer data securely between your computer and their servers. That said, you have to be diligent and look for https:// in the URL bar in your browser (see the image to the right for an example). If you don't see this, chances are you're just using standard HTTP.
This isn't a big deal if you're just reading or watching something, but if you don't see https:// you should avoid sending sensitive information like your credit card number or address. If you'd like to know more about HTTPS, read our guide. Also, the insecurity of HTTP isn't as big of a deal when you're on your password-protected home network, but when you're on a public Wi-Fi connection, anyone can snoop on what you're doing.
Stupid Thing #3: You Feed The Trolls
When you feed the trolls -- that is, the moment when you engage a malicious idiot in their hateful, annoying and pointless discourse -- you do everyone a disservice. You not only involve yourself in an almost endless, useless and anger-filled debate, but you pollute the internet with hateful threads of garbage along with the trolls who start them. The internet is never going to vomit rainbows (at least not all of the time), but we can attempt to create happier, more pleasant communities by avoiding unwarranted fights and flame wars. Unfortunately, it's tough for a lot of people to get past a statement that incites anger but there are a few things that can help.
First, it's important to remember that trolls are not attacking you -- they're attacking boredom. They have nothing better to do than say something mean so that's how they've chosen to spend their time. If what they're saying isn't going to have much of an impact on anyone, just remember that they're bored, loathsome people and let it go. On the other hand, if they're promoting hate speech and potentially causing harm to others, it's best to avoid engaging them and instead report them to the site's administrator. Many sites offer a means of flagging harmful posts, and commenting systems offer ways for an administrator to ban problematic users. A simple email is often sufficient to take care of a bad person. Engaging with a troll-ish thread is just going to make you angry and potentially get you in trouble, too. If you do fall into the trap of feeding a troll, however, using the principles of cognitive therapy can be a worthy solution. This means responding positively and calmly, while accepting their different opinion. The trolls will likely find it frustrating and even condescending, but it's hard to argue with someone who is accepting your point of view (or even agreeing with you).
For more tips on de-trolling your internet, read this.
Stupid Thing #4: You Leave Private Information In Your Web Browser
Nowadays we spend a lot of time in our web browser and that makes it a potential source for embarrassing personal information. If you keep yourself logged into accounts on your computer, anyone casually borrowing your browser for a quick search can stumble onto some pretty personal stuff without even trying. For anyone actually interested in snooping, your web browsing history is a prime target. Even a visit to Amazon can dig up weird products you looked at or bought.
Keeping your browser activity private can be a lot of work, but there are a couple of things you can do to take the pain out of it. First of all, if you're doing anything particularly private on your computer, you can just log out or lock people out with a password. Enabling a guest account can be very useful so when anyone wants to use your computer they won't be entrenched in your embarrassing web activity. If you don't want to password-protect anything, the next best thing you can do is just quit your browser whenever you're done using it and set it to clear your history when you do. On top of that, make sure you log yourself out of any accounts or your browser handles that for you. For the super paranoid, clear your cookies as well. One of our favourite tools for the job is CCleaner (the first 'C' stands for Crap), available for Windows and Mac.
CCleaner will give you a good start, but the fact of the matter is that a determined snoop has a lot of ways to spy on your browsing behaviour. To subvert even the most clever snoop, check out our guide to really browsing the web without leaving a trace. For more tips and tricks, read how to protect your privacy when others have access to your computer.
Stupid Thing #5: You Don't Keep A Backup Of Online Data
You know backing up your computer is important because it's been hammered into your head by us and virtually everyone who knows a thing or two about computers, but somehow we tend to ignore the importance of online backup. Web services go offline all the time. Most recently, MegaUpload was seized by the US government and now many people have lost their uploaded files. They may be filing a lawsuit to regain access, but the reality is they no longer have their data. You never know what's going to happen to your data, especially when it's out of your possession, so always keep at least one backup.
Some data, like photos and videos, can simply remain backed up on a local hard drive. If you lose your content online, you can always access a local copy and upload it elsewhere. That's all well and good if you create your content locally on your computer, but there is plenty you create online as well and that data is only saved on the server. In the case of Facebook, you can simply download all of your data in one big chunk. All you have to do is go into your account settings and look for the "Download a copy of your Facebook data" link at the bottom of the page. Not all web apps allow a full data download like Facebook, however, and you'll need to employ other services. InSync will handle your Google Docs. Backupify can back up multiple web services like Google Apps, Twitter, Facebook and more. If you keep any vital data online, be sure you use something to back it up. If you don't, it could be gone tomorrow with no way to get it back.
Stupid Thing #6: Assuming Your Posts And Comments Are Anonymous
What you say online is going to be around for a long time, and when you do as much as post a comment on a popular site it's likely going to surface when someone does a web search for your name. I've commented on an article maybe three or four times in my life (prior to working at Lifehacker) and this Steve Ballmer hate rant has managed to stick to my name since the day I was apparently so offended (which was over seven years ago).
It's not that it's impossible to comment anonymously online -- and we've offered some tips for doing just that -- but most of us don't follow a strict enough set of rules to remain anonymous. Even if you don't use your real name, comments stick. You'll probably use that pseudonym down the line and it will gain its own reputation. Your name may be tied to that pseudonym on as little as one web site and people will be able to find out who you are with a simple search. Additionally, you may post a comment on a blog or other page without realising that you're already logged in via your Facebook account. There are a lot of ways your name can be tied to what you say online, so it's important to remember that your reputation is riding on every post to some extent. Remember to think about what you're going to say before you say it or it may follow you around for much longer than you expect.
Stupid Thing #7: You Let People Track Your Whereabouts
Checking in to sites like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook is all fun and games until somebody loses an eye -- or, well, any personal belongings that a thief can snatch while s/he knows you're out of the house. A web app called Please Rob Me demonstrates (with humour) how your check-ins can provide too much information regarding your whereabouts when you share publicly. All you really have to do to solve this problems is share privately. Most check-in sites have this option. Follow these instructions for Foursquare, simply become a private user on Gowalla, and if you're using Facebook you can just tag yourself at a location after the fact so your location isn't disclosed in real-time. That's really all there is to it. Be careful who you share your location with and you've fixed the potential damage.
Stupid Thing #8: You Use An Insecure Password That You Rarely (Or Never) Change
If you read Lifehacker with any regularity you know we love a good, strong password. That said, most people seem pretty reluctant to let go of their simple passwords in favour of something more complex. But you can have strong yet memorable passwords or just use a multiword phrase to decrease the chances of anyone ever hacking your password. Or better, yet, you can let a password manager like LastPass pick and remember your complex password for you. But anyone who's using a weak password at this point is likely doing it because they don't want to bother changing every password for every online service they've ever used. While that's understandable, you really just have to get off your butt and take care of it. Using a service like LastPass is a good option because it can save your existing passwords and automatically detect updates when your passwords change. This way you can change them at your leisure, whenever you log into a site with an old password, and make sure everything is still up-to-date and remembered by a password manager. (Consult this infographic for a condensed look at nearly every tip and method we've posted.)