Police officers train in a number of ways to stay safe. They’re taught to maintain physical and mental wellness, to wear of body armor, self-defense techniques, safe driving skills and more. The time has come to acknowledge that staying safe online is just as important to an officer’s physical safety, financial well being and career survival.
Some people find it surprising that I would suggest an officer not be on Facebook, but I do. I’m a huge advocate for police officers, who have public presences in their communities, being on social media in professional capacities. But those same officers are often not careful enough with their personal profiles. The fact is police are on Facebook and every other social network. So it’s important to keep safe online.
Of course, it’s not all about Facebook so here is my best advice for a police officer to stay safe online in his or her personal life in order to keep safe.
- Lock down your social media profiles. I’ve written about Facebook settings over on PoliceOne.com. Additionally, any agency that would like a free one-hour webinar from me need only ask. We go through Facebook settings in details and cover online behavioral best practices as well.
But concerns here aren’t limited to Facebook. LinkedIn is a really great social network for promoting one’s career and connecting with like-minded professionals. But take precautions such as: go into profile settings and select “edit your public profile”. Consider deselecting things like your photo. Then click “select who can see your connections” and set that to “only me”.
- Don’t connect with people you don’t know are real. There are many fake profiles out there. Facebook and LinkedIn are of particular concern. Just as there investigators who create a fake profile to gain intel on bad guys, there are people who create fake profiles just to gain intel in cops.
Even if you’re very careful to not friend people you don’t know, if one of your colleagues does, that colleague is compromising your data. Therefore, the next tip is:
- Create a culture of online safety and awareness at work. We are all so connected that no matter how careful we are individually, we are also at the mercy of those to whom we’re connected. Provide training in online safety, have conversations with your colleagues and hold each other accountable.
If one of your colleagues is doing something unsafe online, point it out. It’s important to have each other’s backs in the virtual world in the same way you do on the street.
- Know the online landscape. Try to stay up to date on new developments in social media and how they affect your safety. Many police groups are concerned about the Waze app. Whether it’s a threat to officer safety or not is up for debate. But the most important thing is that as an officer you’re aware of what it is and how it might affect your safety. If you’re in a car, marked or unmarked, or on a motorbike, you might check to see if another Waze user has “outed” your location and then move if you’re concerned.
Additionally, read blogs and other resources regularly. Consider setting Google alerts (www.google.com/alerts) for words like “social media’ and “officer safety” to help yourself become aware of new developments.
- Monitor your online reputation. There are paid services for this but unless you’ve had a seriously negative event in your life they may be overkill. Instead, while you’re setting Google alerts for topics you’re interested in, set one for your own name as well to keep tabs on what might be published about you.
- Get identify theft insurance. This one is worth paying for. You insure your home, your car, your health and your life. In these days of easy access to our personal information online, you should insure your identity as well. When evaluating the options, be sure your service includes full restoration of your identity should it be compromised.
- Don’t share your personal info. This seems obvious to many of us but there are still many officers who talk about their spouses, kids, family activities and the like when online. People know who the police are. The more you talk about personal aspects of your lives, the more your risk increases.
- Keep your opinions to yourself. This one is just plain not fair but it’s an unfortunate reality of the world in which we live. I think about the officer who tweeted her opinion on the Ferguson verdict from her personal Twitter page. She suffered a great deal of criticism as a result.
Next time you want to state your opinion online, especially if it’s a controversial topic, imagine a bunch of cop-haters looking over your shoulder, ready to pounce on your words, and then hit the delete button.
- Be careful in your use of personal equipment at work. This is a tricky one because many police professionals who use social media in an official capacity aren’t supplied smart phones or tablets to do their jobs. Even those who are might use their personal phone to take a photo or send a text. We all know by now that these devices are discoverable if used for work.
But know this as well, the Atlanta Police Department had a criminal case a few years back where more then 30 police officers’ personal phones were subpoenaed just because they responded to the particular incident in question and had their personal phones on their bodies at the time.
And last but not least…
Know you’re being recorded. First, if you’re one of those cops who thinks s/he can tell someone to turn their cameras off in public places, stop it. You’re wrong and you don’t look good yelling at them to turn off the camera while they’re video’ing you.
As you start your shift every day, remind yourself that it’s highly likely your every action is being recorded. (And then put on your own body-worn camera while you’re at it.)
This stuff changes all the time and it’s tough to stay on top of it. As police officers though, you’re a large and attractive target to many. All it takes is just one person who wants to harm you, to get ahold of one little data point about you that they can somehow use against you.
Make it a point to be informed and knowledgeable about how the online world works and commit to stay that way. Please look out for one another and stay safe.