How to Protect Your Privacy and Stay Safe as a Blogger
In the comments of my post on the things that have made me want to quit blogging, Suze asked for some tips on how to retain your privacy as a blogger – and specifically on how to blog anonymously.
Now, I’ve never actually blogged anonymously, so that’s not something I have personal experience of. To be completely honest, I think that if it was really important to me that no one know who I was, I probably wouldn’t start a blog – not because I think there’s a huge risk of being “found out”, necessarily, but because I think the fear of that happening would probably ruin it for me.
With that said, although I blog under my real name, and am fairly open about what I post, I do take some steps to protect my privacy as a blogger, and that’s what today’s post is about. Before I get to the tips themselves, though, I just want to make it really clear that I’m not trying to scare anyone with this post, or to put you all off blogging altogether. I don’t take these steps because I think I’m particularly at risk, or out of any sense of paranoia about my safety, so please don’t take this post as an indication that blogging is a high-risk activity, or that I’m permanently terrified to leave the house.
While I’m definitely not lying awake at night worrying about cyber-stalkers and other scary online predators, however, as my last post demonstrates, there are some strange people out there, and I think that if you’re putting any aspect of your life online, it’s only sensible to take a few precautions. Here are some things I recommend to protect your privacy and stay safe online…
Get a P.O.Box address
If you’re going to be receiving items through the mail, purchasing a domain, or doing anything which involves telling people where you live, I highly recommend setting up a P.O. Box address, so your real address isn’t ever in the public domain. You can organise a P.O. box through Royal Mail, or there are various other services out there which offer the same thing. You will have to pay for this, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind it’ll give you, seriously.
Be vague about your location
Most bloggers give at least some indication of where they’re based, and it’s not a bad idea to do that: it’s something readers are interested in, and it’s also useful for brands (if you want to work with them) to have at least a rough idea of where you live. It’s not, however, a good idea to be TOO specific about your location: if you live in a large city, the city name should be enough (i.e give your location simply as ‘London’ rather than stating which borough or street you’re in), and if you’re in a smaller town or village, I’d avoid mentioning it by name at at all, and simply state the area instead.
I give my location as ‘UK’ or ‘Scotland’ and will narrow it down to ‘near Edinburgh’ if I’m asked (If a social network or other service requires me to give a city/town name, I say ‘Edinburgh’ even although I don’t actually live in the city…), but I’ll never give out the name of my small village: there’s no reason why anyone should need to know it, and if someone was persistent about asking, it would set alarm bells ringing for me.
Switch off location services on your phone, and don’t use apps which broadcast your location
When I got my first iPhone, I used to use Foursquare – an act which now seems totally idiotic to me, because why on earth would I want complete strangers to be able to see my exact location at any given time? These days I don’t use any services which broadcast my location: I don’t ever geotag my Instagram photos, and if I’m visiting a well-known landmark, or any place people are likely to recognise, I’ll wait until I leave before posting an Instagram photo of it. That might sound overly paranoid, but as I said, while I think the chances of anyone using my Instagram – or any other service – to work out exactly where I am are very, very low, I still think it’s a sensible precaution to take.
Set up separate social media accounts for your blog, and keep work details private
When I first joined Facebook, back in 2007, I accepted friends requests from everyone who sent me one, whether I knew them or not: I just thought that was what you were “supposed” to do, for some reason. As it turned out, though, I DIDN’T know many of the people who sent me those requests: quite a few of them were blog readers, and although some ended up becoming “friends,” many of them didn’t interact with me at all, and just silently lurked on my Facebook page… which ended up feeling a little bit creepy, to be honest, given that I didn’t know them AT ALL.
Eventually, I culled my friends list to only those people I know in real life, or consider to be “blog friends”, and set up a sepperate Facebook page which people can use to follow my blog. It might feel a bit cringey at first to create your own “fan page”, as Facebook calls them, but it allows you to keep your blog life and your real life sepperate, and to know exactly who’s seeing your more personal updates.
Protect other people’s privacy, and ask them to do the same for you
If you blog about your life, it can be tempting to post details about everything you get up to, including things that involve other people. I’d really advise you against posting anything about friends or family members, though (Unless they’re OK with it, obviously, and even then, I wouldn’t say anything too personal) – even if means your readers think you don’t have any! Similarly, if any of your real-life friends read your blog, it’s worth reminding them not to post anything personal there either, as you’re not the only person who’ll be able to read it.
I know that sounds patronising, but if your blog is a personal one, it can be really easy for people to feel like they’re communicating with you directly, and forget that their comment will be in the public domain. I even ask people not to share information about me on my private Facebook and I don’t give my location there either, because even although it’s private, you never really know who’s reading. I figure my close friends already know where I live, and anyone else can feel free to ask, and let me decide whether or not to tell them.
Beware of over-share
There are some who’d say ALL blogging is “over-sharing”, because no one really NEEDS to know the things bloggers typically write about. If you’re a very open person, though, it can be tempting to over-share: especially if you come to see your blog as a community, and your readers as friends – as many of us do. It’s important to remember, however, that while your readers may feel like “friends” – and may even come to BE friends – you have no idea who else might be reading your blog, and whether or not their intentions are friendly. Remember that everything you put onto the internet is accessible to everyone: you might FEEL like you’re chatting with friends, but you never know who might be listening at the door.
Be firm and set boundaries
Blog readers are naturally curious, and that’s not a bad thing: if they weren’t interested in you, they wouldn’t be reading your blog, after all. It’s important to have boundaries, however, and to understand that you’re not obliged to give every tiny detail, even if you’re asked. That doesn’t mean you can’t build relationships with your readers, or that you should keep them at arm’s length at all times (That would honestly be a shame): it just means that you shouldn’t feel obligated to provide information you’re not comfortable about sharing.
When you start a blog, you’re essentially inviting people into your life, but that doesn’t mean you owe them anything they ask. Bloggers get lots and lots of questions, and most of them are totally innocuous. From time to time, though, you’ll get someone asking you something that feels intrusive, or that you don’t want to answer… so don’t. It’s absolutely fine to politely decline to answer a question you feel is too personal, or which makes you feel unsafe.
Don’t give details about regular photo locations
I occasionally get comments from people asking where I took certain outfit photos – or ones from real life friends saying, “Oh, isn’t that X place?” I don’t answer those questions (or I do, but I don’t give the information they want), and I delete any comments which I feel reveal too much about where I was. I’m obviously aware that people who live locally will recognise some locations (And if it’s a well-known place, lots of people will recognise it: I don’t live in Buckingham Palace or on the London Eye, though, so I don’t think there’s much risk in naming/photographing them!) , and there’s not much I can do about that, which leads me to my final point…
Take reasonable precautions offline as well as online
I’ll take the opportunity to just say again here that I’m not trying to scare people, or put them off blogging. At the same time, though, blogging about your life does mean giving up some privacy, and it also means exposing yourself to some of the seedier elements of society. As the comments on my previous post in this series show, I’m far from the only blogger who’s had creepy comments from people who’ve stumbled across my blog, and you don’t have to have a hugely popular blog to experience that, either: it only takes one person to become fixated on something about you/your blog to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s also worth noting that no matter how careful you are about protecting your address, etc, if someone really WANTS to find you, they’ll probably be able to, so it’s important to make sure you take reasonable precautions to protect yourself offline as well as online.
I’m speaking here about things that are hopefully common-sense: don’t meet up with someone you met online without telling someone where you’re going (and ideally meeting in a public place), be aware of any suspicious comments or emails you get, and don’t be afraid to contact the police if something is causing you concern. Better to be safe than sorry, after all.
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These are just a few of the things you can do to stay safe as a blogger, and make sure your online life doesn’t overlap too much with your offline one: if you have any other tips on this subject, I’d love to hear them!