How to…protect yourself and your identity online

IT and social care experts give their tips on safe use of technology

The internet offers countless opportunities for social care professionals to interact with each other and with service users; to share information; and to assist in continuing professional ­development. But it is also a public place, with all the risks to privacy and personal safety of the real world. These tips from IT and social work experts could help protect your identity and security online.

How technology is changing social care: a special report


1 Should all that data be in one place?

Most serious security breaches happen because inappropriate amounts of data have been ­gathered in one place and then lost. It might be convenient to have all your client data on your laptop, but does it really need to be there?

2 “Password” is not a password

Try not to choose something easily guessable such as a partner’s name or a date of birth, and avoid using the same password for work, Facebook and internet banking. It can all be circumvented if the password is revealed, guessed or tricked out of a user.

3 A work laptop is for working on

Tempting as it may be to save time by shopping online rather than taking a break, or by checking Facebook rather than phoning friends, if that’s against your organisation’s policies give it a miss. One innocent mistake can breach acceptable use policies and end a career overnight.

4 If you don’t want it public, don’t put it online

There’s a simple golden rule for using social media: any information you put online is vulnerable to accidental or deliberate misuse. Anything a user says or does can leak out to the wider world, and even if all the privacy controls are switched on, a “friend” can still copy that embarrassing picture, or a lost password can reveal everything. Never say anything online that you wouldn’t say in public.

5 Is that person actually a friend?

Think carefully about whether you actually know the person who has just asked to be your friend. Aim for quality, not ­quantity.

6 Work and play don’t mix well

It is quite common for young people to have multiple profiles on social media to protect their different personae – for example, a private Facebook page for their friends, and another that they leave accessible for their parents or potential employers. The idea of keeping work and home apart is a good one and may work well for professionals too because it reduces the risk of personal information leaking to professional contacts and vice versa.

Toby Stevens is director of the Enterprise Privacy Group and advises on privacy, data protection, security and identity issues. Call 01420 561856 or email him 


1 Maintain a professional identity online

It’s important to identify what you need to put your name to and what you don’t. When blogging or using discussion forums, people don’t always use their full names anyway.

2 Where is my information going?

We all have the capacity to save and store vast amounts of information, so assume that people will save your material. It may be passed on. This is fine if you want it to happen. Remember that you can control what you put online but you have little control over it once it is there.

3 Networking

Networking allows us to make links with other professionals, to maintain and build contacts, and share information. This can be beneficial, but ensure that your communication remains ­transparent, preferably online. When using social networking sites, it’s important to maintain the boundaries between your private and professional life. Avoid having professional and personal contacts on the same friends list.

4 Inform your colleagues

Ensure colleagues and your employers are aware of your online activities. Follow guidelines for the profession, as well as your employer’s IT policies.

5 Interaction with service users

A key question to consider is whether to communicate with service users and their families through social networking sites in your professional role. This is an area where you need to be very clear about your employer’s policy and consider the benefits, risks, and professional and ­personal accountability. Is it ­­in your service users’ best ­interests to use social networking sites?

6 Online discussions

Consult others, especially colleagues and your organisation. Take part in discussions of issues, as you would in other parts of your professional life. Remember your commitment to ethics and sound principles of confidentiality.

7 New developments

Read up on the subject, ensure that you understand the technology, its advantages and limitations. Keep up to date with developments within the sector, media stories and professional journal articles.

Dave Mason is a lecturer in social work at Staffordshire University

Lee Pardy-McLaughlin is a principal lecturer in social work at Staffordshire University

Do you have a topic from your working life that you would like covered in How to…? Email Kirsty McGregor

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