En español | An innocent birthday party picture posted on Facebook or an Instagram shot of the grandkids cavorting at the beach can earn you a lecture from a son or daughter-in-law about the dangers of stalkers and online privacy.
But is sharing a little grandparental pride online really so bad?
It can be, says Parry Aftab, who not only is a grandmother but also a preeminent lawyer who has specialized in digital privacy and cybersecurity for more than 20 years. Aftab is a vocal consumer advocate in the New York City area and has advised organizations — from the United Nations to UNESCO — on privacy and the risks to children online.
"I've got grandsons, so I know how grandparents can disagree with parents about what happens online,” she says.
Innocuous posts can land elsewhere
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can be triggered from a seemingly anonymous photo posting. But photos on sites such as Facebook and Google are tagged automatically with a series of keywords that can identify the child, and those photos can end up in databases used by businesses, law enforcement, marketers, schools — even foreign governments, Aftab says.
Unbeknownst to most consumers, digital photos also often include embedded time and location information, which makes it even easier to track people and their families. So images combined with other clues, like a seemingly innocuous “Happy birthday!” caption, can yield personal information that makes someone more vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.
"It's important for grandparents to understand that privacy is not about ‘hiding.’ It's about safety,” says Deputy Director Evan Greer of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital-rights advocacy group based in Boston. “Modern technology makes it all too easy for photos or personal information that are shared with the best of intentions to be exploited and used to do harm."
Your kids aren't the only ones who might get upset. The grandchildren themselves may call you out.
Kids today are remarkably sophisticated about the use of social media, particularly when it comes to how they present themselves online. Even though they're technically not supposed to use some of these services, preteens invest a lot of time in their online persona, which they tightly monitor and control.
Having Grandma post a less-than-flattering picture of them can torpedo all those efforts.
Think of how a parental unit can embarrass a child in a store or restaurant. Now multiple that by thousands.
Everything's part of their permanent record
Particularly unnerving today is the explosion in the use of facial recognition software to identify millions of individuals in photos and videos. Thanks to a new generation of more accurate and complex computer algorithms introduced in 2015, face recognition has become a nearly ubiquitous tool for marketers and law enforcement alike.
"It's as if you're all now part of a virtual lineup all day long,” explains Nita A. Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, about how the technology can be deployed. With the exception of a couple of states, use of facial recognition technology has virtually no restrictions in the United States, and that can lead to unintended consequences:
• If a photo is taken near a particular location — say, a hospital or clinic — it can reveal health information, a drug dependency or other personal data.
• In some cases, such as tags that may indicate a person or their relatives have sought help from a mental health professional, people can be stigmatized.
• Image scanning even may identify teens at a party where alcohol was served, potentially tarnishing their reputations with future business recruiters.
All of this information can end up in a permanent digital profile of the child and ultimately affect admission to a particular school or receiving a scholarship. Later, it could dictate whether your grandchild can get a lower interest rate loan, a mortgage or a specific job.
And in the U.S., such profile data can be virtually impossible to check or correct because it is rarely shared with individuals.
'Private’ isn't often private
Many social networks and apps offer privacy settings. But most actually don't do anything to staunch the flow of information, which exacerbates the problem. “Just because your social media account is set to ‘private’ does not mean that it's actually private,” Greer says.
Your friends and family can share things you post with their friends and family. And most social media companies do little to protect your personal information from hackers.
Worse still, even with privacy settings in place, social media companies usually resell information about the habits and personal details of their customers to other businesses. In some cases, that includes law enforcement.
A Norwegian Consumer Council study published in January revealed the cascading effect of such information sharing on smartphone apps. In one example, a Twitter-owned ad company, MoPub, collected information on individual users of some apps, including their precise location.
MoPub then shared that user data with more than 180 other companies, including an ad company that AT&T owns. That company shared its information with another 1,000-plus businesses.
Talk to your kids about what's acceptable
Does this mean proud grandparents never can crow online about a child who makes the honor society or kicks the winning goal at Sunday's soccer game? Not necessarily.
The first step is to have that conversation with your kids about digital boundaries involving their children.
Ask about what they feel comfortable sharing with friends online. Find out if they would rather you cleared it with them first, say, in a direct email, before posting a photo. They also may be comfortable with private groups on WhatsApp but not on Facebook — even though Facebook owns WhatsApp.
"It's about values and consistency and peace in the family,” Aftab says.
The second step is to look at the privacy settings and information you share on social networks and websites you use. Take time to read privacy statements and understand privacy settings in apps such as Facebook.
This review takes some work, but it will give you a better understanding of where your personal posts go.
Such a personal online inspection also can help make you less vulnerable. The less information you share on websites, the less likely a criminal will be able to trick you in a scam and gather personal details about your life.
So can you safely post shots of the grandkids bashing piñatas with impunity anywhere online?
"No,” Aftab says. “Our children and grandchildren will never have the level of privacy that we had growing up."
John R. Quain is a contributor to the New York Times and editor in chief of On the Road.
Check your Facebook privacy
Facebook continued to be the most popular social media platform worldwide in 2019. Here's how to check the way your posts are shared:
1. Click on the down arrow symbol ▼ located in the upper-right corner of the dark blue bar at the top of your Facebook page.
2. Choose Settings.
3. Click on Privacy in the left column.
4. Review the list of eight items to decide exactly how much you want to share.
5. Look especially at the first item: Who can see your future posts? You'll have a choice of Public; Friends; Friends except …, which allows you to exempt some friends; Specific friends, which will require you to choose with whom to share; Only me, which may defeat the reason you're posting in the first place; and Custom, which allows you to include or exclude specific friends or lists you've created.
6. Be aware that your friends can share your posts to their friends or everybody, so your privacy settings won't create an impenetrable wall around what you share.
7. Also be aware that even if you've turned off Face Recognition and Tagging in other areas of your Facebook Settings, Facebook knows who you are based on past behavior. The service might not suggest a tag to your friends when you're in their photos after you've turned off Face Recognition, but those people still can manually type in a name as a tag.