With the rise and rise of social networking sites, everyone is getting online and publishing more stuff about their own lives. But not everyone is fully aware of the risks that they run by putting so much information about themselves online.

The Internet never forgets

Many people don’t realise that when something gets published, it is very hard to take it off the Internet. Consider this when publishing photos from the last time you had an all-night, booze-fuelled party. A number of sites offer historical archives of the web. Google offers up cached versions of web pages in its results. Historical data has caused all sorts of problems a number of companies, most recently United Airlines. Other stories keep resurfacing. The BBC and Microsoft have an ongoing issue with a story written in 2001 about Hotmail considering charging users for its e-mail service. The story (from 2006) is here.

Employers will search the web for you

Many employers will now search the web for any information they can find out about you before you get offered a job and, in some cases, will take issue with things that you post online while working for them. Here are some examples:

Policeman loses job opportunity because of his Facebook profile

Waterstones employee loses job because of blog comments

Australian man found lying about sickness through Facebook

Virgin and BA staff sacked for Facebook site criticising customers and their respective companies

And if you think you can simply delete your Facebook profile, think again. It is seemingly very difficult to actually erase yourself. While deactivating your account is simple enough, actually getting Facebook to delete your details is much harder. This has been the subject of concern by the Information Commissioner and he discusses it on this BBC page.

Watch out for the actions of others

If you do post something on your profile beware what others may do with that information. There has been a tragic case recently of a woman who was murdered by her husband, simply because she had changed her relationship status on her profile.

It’s not all bad

There are ways that you can limit the risks you run by using social networking sites:

Always think about what you upload: consider what that picture of you on the drunken night out might look like to a future employer.

Don’t post everything about yourself: a date of birth is essential for an identity thief – do you really need it on your profile?

Check the privacy settings: most sites, like Facebook, allow you to restrict who has access to what information.

Search online every so often to see what’s published about you: it’s always a good idea to see what information is available about you online.

Don’t install every Facebook app: some have been found to be malicious

Only invite friends that you know: if you don’t know them in person, think hard before accepting that friend request. They may be impersonating someone else.

There are sites that can help. Sophos do a really good guide to Facebook settings, there’s an online video about MySpace privacy settings from SafetyClicks, and Bebo themselves have published an online safety guide.

But these settings will not protect you if you’re either blogging directly, have your own website or use another service. Fundamentally, the question you have to ask yourself is: should this information be online at all.