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Twitter is Terrific for Thieves - The Dark Side of Status Updates

Consider these posts from a fictional Twitterer:

Man, this 60-inch plasma display looks totally awesome on our living room wall!
@<user>, what's even better is the incredible sound coming through our Bose home theater system - it so totally rocks!

And some time later, this partial exchange:

@<user2> - take <highway> to <city>. Get off at exit 9 for Main Street.
@<user2> - coming down Main St take the 2nd left onto North St. 3rd house on right. Blue with yellow shutters. Can't miss it.

And some more time later, this on a Friday:

Goodbye fellow twitterers! We are all going away to <city far away> for the long weekend. See you on Tuesday!

Could it get any better for a thief?

They have been given a juicy target... they have been given precise location (which often is also included in the user's profile- or enough is there that a thief could use other public information such as phone directories to get an address)... and they have been given a window of opportunity in which they know no one will be home. What more do they need? Well, maybe a tweet like this:

Darn. Alarm system is offline and company says they can't repair it until next week.

And I've seen people tweet things along those lines - and I've had to wonder what people are thinking.

Or perhaps they aren't really "thinking"... caught up in the fun that Twitter, Jaiku, Pownce and Facebook status updates can provide, it's easy to just post whatever random thoughts come into your brain. Without thinking of whether or not there are ramifications for the safety of themselves or their property.

Now the same can be said for blogging. I've certainly seen people blog all sorts of details about their activities that, in my opinion, they probably shouldn't. But "status updates" are so immediate... more like IM messages, except for this wee minor detail that they are potentially searchable via Google and easy to find publicly (depending upon the service).

How great is this for thieves? If I'm a smart thief all I need to do is do some searching for Twitterers (or users of another service) in a given area, aggregate their RSS feeds and just keep watching and reading for a while. Sooner or later I'll be able to identify some targets and then I really just need to wait for some window of opportunity to appear. If I'm a smarter thief I probably aggregate blog feeds and other information as well.

Of course, the reality is that if a thief is this smart, he or she is probably involved in much more potentially lucrative endeavors such as identity theft, phishing or other online criminal activities. Still, there is some potential for thieves and others to read your status updates and gain information that can help them know when they can target you or your property and what value might be there. I suppose I can summarize it as the pithy:

Think before you tweet!

Seriously, though, there are undoubtedly some "Status Safety Tips" or "Tips for Safe Twittering" that we can come up with. I'll offer some suggestions here:

  • Do you really want the world to see all your updates? Twitter allows you to make it so that updates are only seen to those following you and that you have to request to receive updates. If I recall correctly, the default in Pownce is that a new post is only visible to your friends. Facebook keeps all of the status updates inside of its walled garden... unless, of course, you've done what I've done and put your Facebook status on your web page and/or had it go out to Twitter. You have the choice. Now the downside of keeping your updates private is that you lose out on the all the potential Googlejuice and other SEO/SEM goodness that comes with having your updates out there. You lose out on people finding you. On the other hand, it's probably a whole lot safer.

    It's a choice you have to make. My choice has been, for now anyway, to be very public with it all. I'm very deliberately using all these media as part of my own experimentation in online PR, personal branding, marketing, etc. But I've gone into it with my eyes wide open realizing that you need to be careful.

  • Do you really want to post that your home is empty? I often use my twitter feed as an ongoing travelogue when I'm traveling to conferences, but readers may or may not have noticed that I typically don't post about travel when I'm NOT on business travel. I may post AFTER a trip "Just had a wonderful weekend in New Hampshire!, but I tend not to post about it before leaving. I do worry to a degree about my posts about travel in that it clearly states when I am not at home but my family is. However, I've made the personal decision that the benefit I gain through that communication about my travel far outweighs whatever small risk there might be to my family. Still, it is something to think about.

  • Do you really want to post about that big expensive new toy you got? Sure, don't we all? That's half the fun of status updates. Posting about what we are passionate about and the cool things that intersect with our lives. Some of those may be expensive toys and we know that our geeky friends will love to hear about it. I do it. But the warning is to remember that if you are running with public status updates anyone can see them, including those who might not be friendly.

What other suggestions would you have?

At the end of the day, security is balancing act. Odds are that there probably isn't (yet) a ring of thieves in your neighborhood sitting there monitoring Twitter/Jaiku/Pownce, etc. Odds are that you can post about whatever you want very publicly and there will be no issue. The benefit you gain from engaging with your community... for developing those relationships... may far outweigh any safety risks.

But I do think it is something we need to think about. The amount of information we choose to share publicly is our choice. With every post, we make that choice whether we realize that we are doing so or not. I choose to be very public, but also do think about what I post. I know others who are more private with their information. It's a choice.

What is your choice?

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