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When I left on a three week vacation I did not hide the fact, and in fact mentioned it publicly in the weeks leading up to it. Was that advisable?

In your past few newsletters you mentioned that you were on a trip to down under. I wonder whether this is good practice. Lately there has been some rumor here about an internet site that mentions who is at home and who is not, based on public information they gather from the internet. They do this just to show how volatile people make themselves for burglary, just by tweeting around where they hang out. And although this site does it just to show and warn people (or at least they say so), others do the same thing for less altruistic reasons. And you helped them a great deal: shouting aloud "I'm not home!" Wouldn't it be worth to spend an article about this?

I've actually had a couple of people ask me this since I returned from my three week trip to Australia and New Zealand.

It is something I considered before I left, so it was indeed a decision I made rather than an accident.

I'll share some of my thoughts.

There's been a fair amount of talk recently about sites that collect publicly available information about you - most frequently Twitter tweets, since those are the most current - to determine quite literally if you're at home, or not.

It sounds kinda scary, though of course it's not really anything new. The "newness" is the ease and the ubiquity with which the information can be gathered and shared. And, to be honest, many people - particularly adolescents - do over-share information in public forums. If nothing else, the publicity has been a good reminder to all that what you post publicly is ... well ... public. Anyone can see it.

"... it wasn't going to be feasible to 'hide' the fact that I was going to be out for 3 weeks."

I do think it's important that you realize just that: everything that you say publicly, regardless of where you say it, could be collected and patterns discerned. If in one venue you say "I made my springtime in Maui reservations, whoo hoo!" and then in some other location say "I'm out of the office until May 3rd" it's not that hard for someone who cares to put two and two together.

If they care, that is. More on "caring" in a moment.

In my case, I was faced with a very pragmatic reality: it wasn't going to be feasible to "hide" the fact that I was going to be out for 3 weeks. That's part of the cost, if you will, of having a public persona, a very public venue like Ask Leo!, and a relatively rigorous publishing schedule. Clearly something was going to be pretty obvious the first week I was away.

Similarly, I also wanted to share the trip while it was in progress - not only with friends and family, but with Ask Leo! readers and fans. Nothing's going to say "he's not home" like a picture of me in front of the Sydney, Australia Starbucks. There's also no way I could have had the meetups that I enjoyed without letting people know that I was going to be there, and not here at home.

All in all, "hiding" the fact that I was traveling just wasn't practical.

So, caution and precaution were the operative words.

  • My home wasn't empty for three weeks. It was occupied continuously. It also had 5 dogs in it - including several good barkers (we're up to 6 now). Having our border act as house and pet sitter was, in fact, something that enabled us to take this lengthy a trip to begin with. I also tried to drop these facts into the public stream of information about my trip.

  • We know our neighbors. As silly as that sounds, it's not true for many communities. Before I left not only did my immediate neighbors get somewhat overloaded with information, so did the house sitter. Everyone knew everyone else, and all knew to simply keep an eye out.

  • I'm not impossible to find, but I also don't make it too easy. For example, if you do a domain registration search on ask-leo.com and you'll find a post office box in Woodinville, not my home address. Yes, this is a kind of "security by obscurity" that I often talk about as a bad thing - and by itself it would be. Obscurity can, however, add a layer of complexity to a more complete plan.

  • I'm not convinced anyone would care. Most home break-ins are crimes of opportunity, rather than targeted attacks. It's extremely unlikely that my neighborhood burglar subscribes to Ask Leo! - or even cares to use a computer at all. That's not to say that they aren't out there, but it does mean that anything I might say publicly isn't something that they'd be likely to see or use.

Finally - and this is going to sound pollyanna-ish to some but ... I'm just not that concerned. I don't doubt that crime happens, or that it even happens in my neighborhood - I know that it does. But I also know that news is "news" because by definition it's out of the ordinary. Something is newsworthy because it doesn't happen all the time. Crime in our area does make news, and that's because it's uncommon.

That's not to say I don't think it'll happen to me, it just means that the chances of it happening are comparatively low.

It's also not to say that I didn't take precautions - I did, including the things I listed above and a few more I haven't mentioned. I certainly didn't ignore the possibility.

But I also didn't allow it to cause me to be afraid. Thoughtful and considered? Absolutely. Afraid? Not at all.

Let's face it - something could just as easily happen now that I'm home.

The biggest lesson here, as far as I'm concerned, not to stop posting publicly, and it's also not to ignore the consequences of what you post. Rather, it's to make what you post publicly a decision rather than an accident. Be aware of what you say, how you say it, and to whom. Understand the actual, practical - not sensationalized - risks involved and decide how you want to deal with them.

And then act accordingly.

We had a great trip.

Article C4199 - March 4, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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11 Comments
Bob
March 9, 2010 8:48 AM

Leo' I like the fact that you said "We know our neighbors." That fact alone makes you, and your neighbors safer, while away, as well as when you are home. Simply knowing who you live near makes it easier to know when someone, who does not belong, is lurking around the area. If we all did this, we would all be safer, not to mention, we would be better people because of it. We have lost this in our nation and it is a shame. Thank you for reminding us of this. Happy travels.

Robert DiGrazia
March 9, 2010 9:02 AM

Leo,
All this computer stuff and your helping people with their problems is OK, I guess.

But six dogs!? Yay! Congratulations. You lead a worthwhile life. Thanks.

Three are ours, and three belong to our boarder. There's no sneaking in Smile.
Leo
10-Mar-2010

Joe Chernicoff
March 9, 2010 12:02 PM

Some general information: dogs and neighbors are okay, but it pays to harden your premises - security doors over the perimeter doors, security film on your windows (any through which a person can enter, and at least a local alarm.

Sounds like too much security and too much cost? No! Definitely valuable enhancements in today's world. After all, a man's home is his castle, and castles always had a moat surrounding them. And the modern date moat just makes it too difficult for anyone to attempt a break-in, whether you are home or not.
If you would like more information for your own use, click over to http://jcsl2s.com, and http://jcsl2s.com/safety_film. For podcasts on security, go over to http://jcsl2s.com/podcasts.

Joe C.

Brian Monte
March 9, 2010 2:18 PM

I agree with you comment about crime of opportunity. What you did does not lead to a crime of opportunity because it would take some effort to track down your house (and there would be doubt at the the accuracy of info done with a web search). What is stupid is to post vacation (or other events that leave your house unoccupied) on a pubic forum read by lots of locals that also lists the home address. When all the info needed is in one place (like a Facebook page with the whole high school friended) then it is an invitation for a Crime of Opportunity.

Viljit
March 9, 2010 6:33 PM

Leo, you get to take a break. Ignore the destructive trolls. And thanks.

Viljit
March 9, 2010 6:49 PM

Three week vacation advertised publicly? SHTOOPID!
Give the good neighbor a house key and have him/her feed animals and collect mail/newspapers. $5/day seems adequate. Like a book-store gift card and a hand-written Thank You. Add a letter of authorization to the vet, if ya got animals.
I'm off topic, Leo's bad replying to trolls.

We did indeed leave a letter of authorization for the vet. For animal owners that's a great idea and can avoid some very unpleasant situations.
Leo
10-Mar-2010

Charles Tilley
March 9, 2010 7:39 PM

Leo, you did the right things, being in the limelight like you are, you simply can't "slip away" without disclosing some details. Note that I said "some", as you did. Of course you're not going to tell everything, mainly because it's none of our business. And you're right, if something were going to happen, most likely you would be around, because when one plans to be gone a while, precautions are taken, for example, expensive rings, precious stones and the like are going to be tucked away safely in a safe deposit box at the bank, not under a mattress. Leo, you work hard to keep us informed, and you deserve a vacation just as anyone else does. Never mind all of the paranoia, that's what the incident that happened on 9/11/01 taught us. They wanted us to be afraid of the next attack and disrupt our lives. It didn't work. Take precautions, yes, but don't go overboard worrying, you won't enjoy yourself.

sirpaul1
March 10, 2010 12:01 AM

What? No moat!

Not that you can see, anyway. Smile
Leo
10-Mar-2010

Lee Nelson Guptill
March 10, 2010 8:25 AM

If you your lips would keep from slips, five things observe with care--of whom you speak, to whom you speak, and how, and when, and where . . .

Norman Rondeau
March 10, 2010 10:03 PM

Looks to me like you followed all the best advice I have seen for people preparing to be away from home. Great Job! It is nice to see you back at work.

Mike
March 11, 2010 2:13 PM

Fear for the SAKE of fear. There is a difference between taking precautions and being paranoid. As a matter of habit, I shred all paper that contains personal info since it's just as easy as throwing it in the waste basket next to the shredder. But if one piece does not get shredded, I'm not paranoid. Contrary to scare stories, there are NOT bad ol' boogeymen haunting the county dumps digging through scraps of paper in the hopes of finding something with a little info on it. And people are not hanging out on Twitter, gathering and sorting masses of information, hoping to find one address where somebody has gone for vacation.

It's the same scare scam as those 128-character passwords involving a mixture of upper-case, lower-case, numbers, and special characters, because a high speed personal computer these days can try every combination of an 8-character password in something like 16 hours. Ignoring completely the fact that any password-protected site will lock down the entire account when bombarded with more than a half-dozen attempts.

As Leo said, take precautions and you then reduce a small risk down to lightning strike or lottery odds. It's possible, but not probable.

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