We all have fun with blogs, and some of us would like to use blogging as a springboard to a way to make a living doing what we love. But do the stories and pictures we post on the Internet put bloggers and their families at risk?
This is a question I've struggled with for the approximately 15 months I've been writing the Bright Idea Outdoors Weblog. Some members of the Outdoor Bloggers Summit and the more widespread informal blogging fraternity, of which I'm proud to count myself a member, share my concerns. Others hold little back when it comes to blogging about their families and day-to-day lives.
"Some people are absolutely against posting any pictures of their kids or any personal information at all," said Kristine Shreve of the Hunt Smart Think Safety blog. "Other people do it all the time. So I guess it kind of depends on your own personal comfort level."
When I started out, I didn't use anyone else's name on my site without his or her permission. The same went for pictures, and posting pictures of my kids was strictly off limits. But as my blog grew, and as I began to think of it more as a kind of calling than just a hobby, I grew a little less cautious about the information and pictures I post. But does this complacency make me and my family potential targets for predators who troll the Internet looking for victims?
Most of what we hear about in the news, and what my Google searches on the subject turned up, is teens and pre-teens who communicate with strangers via the Internet, go to meet with them and then are victimized. But my biggest concern has always been that some psycho would read about my life, see pictures of my kids, and develop a fixation that could spur an attempt to attack us.
A more specific concern that has arisen as a result of the research I've done for this post is that a pedophile would use information he had learned about me on my blog to try and trick my kids into thinking he knew me and that they could trust him. I also worry that if I write a post on a planned trip out of town, someone might take the opportunity to target my family or my home.
There are some sick individuals out there, and the Internet seems to have become their tool of choice for finding victims. I've done quite a bit of research over the past couple of weeks; I've talked to some experts and talked to some other bloggers. I haven't found any magic bullet to solve my dilemma, but I have reached some conclusions that I hope will safeguard my family and yours as well.
Sickos on the Net
If you're not sure what kind of person it is that concerns me, just pop over to Daily Crime News and read the stories about self-professed pedophile Jack McClellan. This freak gained notoriety when he published a how-to guide for pedophiles on his web site. According to reports, McClellan posted pictures of children he had taken in public places but claimed he had never touched the little girls.
Lately however, he has stayed in the news for alleged violations of a restraining order that is intended to keep him away from children and for information he once posted on his site about the murder of 10-year-old Adre'anna Jackson.
So McClellan is the type of person that I don't want reading my blog. At least one well-known outdoor blogger thinks it's unlikely that he would be.
"My online blog is about hunting, and I really think that online predators are after easier game to get to," said Rex Howell of the Deer Camp Blog. "I think that you worry too much about this problem."
But a few phone calls to contacts outside the blogging world indicated that my fears may be warranted.
What the Experts Say
The Loudoun County, Virginia Sheriff's Office probably has as much experience investigating online predators as any local police department in the nation. That's because the Internet giant AOL is based in the county, and whenever a search warrant is issued for anyone's AOL records nationwide, Loudoun investigators execute that warrant.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Kraig Troxell says bloggers should be careful about making their personal information public.
"The biggest concern is how well can they trace you back through the site," Troxell said.
He said that even when a blogger or chat room participant attempts to hide his or her identity, predators can pick up on clues or "identifiers" that help them pattern their victims.
"The thing you've got to be careful of is these identifiers."
Troxell said that the concept of a predator becoming fixated on a child whose picture he has seen on a website is not unheard of, but that most victims of Internet predators have communicated online with their attackers. More than once, he mentioned MySpace, the social networking site popular among adolescents and young adults.
"The majority of of the cases that we're dealing with are from chat rooms or MySpace," Troxell said.
In telephone and e-mail interviews, authorities with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also pointed first to the dangers of the Internet for teens who meet people online. But they also cautioned against posting pictures of kids on the Web.
"I would never do that," said Robert O'Brien, NCMEC Executive Director of Missing Children Services. "If you put it on a website, where people can download it, you're at very high risk... Some of these pedophiles are fascinated by pictures of kids."
O'Brien also pointed to the risk of identity theft that comes with posting personal information, including full names and birth dates.
"A lot of people have no idea the risk they take when they put in information about themselves."
Deputy Director of NCMEC's Exploited Child Division John Shehan answered a series of questions on the dangers of blogging about one's family. Here's a portion of that e-mail interview:
Bright Idea Outdoors: "Are there any circumstances in which it is OK to post a picture of a child on the Internet?"
Shehan: "There is no cut and dried answer to the question of when or if it is OK to put a child's picture on the Internet. Once an image is online, there is no getting it back or monitoring what happens to it because there is no particular way to prevent your uploaded images from being copied, saved and used by other individuals online. The only way to ensure that no one is using and saving your images is to avoid uploading them to the Internet. Even if you use coding to prevent users from right-clicking and saving your pictures, they can still screen capture the page the images are posted on and save it.
"The main issue you should consider in this situation is the amount of personal information that will be available about your child. If your child's name, parents' names, age or location is posted with the picture, this could be dangerous.
"If an image is posted online, it should be a group photo that does not identify individual children in any way. In addition, the child should not carry or wear items that visibly display his/her name or suggest a school or location."
Bright Idea Outdoors: "What type of personal information puts the writer of a blog at risk?"
Shehan: "In blogs, people write about anything--from their thoughts and feelings to daily activities and national news events. As with any other site online, it is risky to give out personal information, such as full names, addresses, phone numbers, school names or post photographs online. This includes making or posting plans and activities on the site. These types of information can reveal where children go to school, who their friends are, the names of clubs or teams they belong to, or where they live. Blogs are very popular with teens and young adults who use them as an outlet for their creativity. Children see their blogs as personal diaries and without realizing how many people have access to it, forget to censor them accordingly. Children are expressive with their blogs, often writing poetry and their innermost thoughts, revealing their insecurities, feelings about their families, dreams, expectations, and frustrations. Someone looking to harm children can gain valuable information from these blogs to target vulnerable children.
"When information is posted on a social networking site, even within a private setting, it can still become public information. Other people can view what is posted on the page, copy and paste it, and put it in a more public forum online or through e-mail or IM. Anything that is posted online can become public and widely distributed.
"More information about safer blogging is available in the NCMEC publication Blog Beware. Communicating with children is an important and effective strategy for keeping them safer. Talk with them frequently, ask questions about their online activities and regularly take a look at their profile or blog."
Bright Idea Outdoors: "Is there a danger that a predator could become fixated on a child whose picture he has seen on the Web and target that child?"
Shehan: "Yes, a predator can see a child’s picture and become fixated on that child. Sexual predators can target children online while maintaining relative anonymity. The nature of online interaction allows predators to hide their identity, age, and intentions. Sexual predators may frequent online chat rooms and social networking sites looking for children. These predators target likely victims, make contact with them, and work to develop friendship, emotional reliance, and interest in sexual topics. Predators may even send a child gifts to gain their trust. He or she may initiate offline sexual relations quickly or spend months 'grooming' the child toward a sexual relationship.
"Once an image is online, there is no getting it back or monitoring what happens to it because there is no particular way to prevent your uploaded images from being copied, saved, and used by other individuals online. The only way to ensure that no one is using and saving your images is to avoid uploading them to the Internet."
Shehan also mentioned that "seemingly harmless" information such as where a blogger works and what hours or income level could put his or her family at risk.
In an August 22 press release promoting Internet safety as children return to school this year, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan cautioned youngsters against posting personal information and images online.
"Online safety is now an essential part of a child's education," Madigan said. "As the online environment continues to evolve, those of us who can take action to protect children--including law enforcement, teachers and parents--need to continue to improve our methods of teaching Internet safety so that our messages are clear and easy for students to follow."
Among the "seven key principles of Internet safety" listed in Madigan's release are: Never put personal information online; remember that anyone can read blogs; and communicate only with friends and family.
But this press release, along with most of the material I found regarding Internet safety, is aimed at teaching the kids themselves to be careful when they go online. To the best of my knowledge, all of the blogs I read are written by adults. So I asked the bloggers what they do to keep their families safe and where they come out on posting personal information and pictures.
What the Bloggers Say
Kristine Shreve writes her blog on behalf of her employer, Gun Safety Innovations and its flagship product, the Gunslinger.
"On the topic of personal information, I don't face that issue as much as some do, since the blog I write is not 'my blog,' it belongs to the company," Shreve wrote in an online comment. "Originally the intention was that there would be no personal information in it. Over time, bits and pieces of my life have become part of the story. I would probably include more personal stuff if the blog were my personal blog. I'm considering starting one of those but haven't made the final decision, mostly for many of the reasons you mentioned in your post."
Bryan Karazsia, the Deer PhD, professed caution in a blog post comment.
"Yes, I am very cautious about providing too much information about my family," Karazsia said. "With everything we hear on the news, I guess you can never be too careful."
Despite this, however, he recently published a post that included the date of his wedding and his travel plans for Labor Day weekend.
Dana-The Wild WoodsWoman said: "I had a photo of my nephew for my latest post and permission from his mom to use it. But I still couldn't bring myself to put it on there; I found a photo of kids with their backs turned. I try to be extremely vague about personal information because of the reasons you mentioned."
Arthur of Simply Outdoors said: "I personally would err on the side of caution! My two cents! I know what you go through because my family is a huge part of my outdoor site!"
Othmar Vohringer of Outdoors With Othmar Vohringer says he is careful in all aspects of his Internet usage.
"I am extremely cautious on the Internet. Despite what many say, privacy is not secure on the Net. We do nothing personal on the Internet, be that banking, shopping or anything that requires us to leave addresses and phone numbers or any other confidential information."
Vohringer does write about his own hunting exploits occasionally, but his blog tends to focus more on news about the outdoors and outdoor products.
Darrell of Alpha Trilogy wrote what is probably my favorite comment received while working on this project. I wouldn't expect Darrell to be an easy target for anyone who meant him or his family harm.
"I fully understand your concerns. I have them too," Darrell wrote. "Hopefully, any [Internet] predators realize that while I might enjoy letting a deer walk by without taking a shot at it, predators don't get that consideration."
This attitude may be part of the reason outdoor bloggers, who are often well-armed and self-reliant, are not afraid to blog about their families and personal comings and goings. Rex Howell said that an Internet predator might disappear forever in the woods of Howell's native Mississippi.
"I personally have never worried about blogging about my family," Howell wrote. "I want the pictures and stories of them preserved, so that they can watch the events of their lives unfold off of the Internet.
"I do not worry about child predators. We live in an area that we feel relatively safe in. I think that they appear more with online chatting than anything else. Of course, if one located and came to the Christmas Place to bother mine or anyone else's children, there are lots of places to hide the body forever.
"I believe that most people are honest and trustworthy. I believe people that hunt are more so than others."
I agree with Rex's last comment. But I also believe there are a lot of bad people out there, and that there must be a few hunters among them. Also, remember, as the experts fromt the NCMEC were quick to point out, we have no control over who sees our sites. The blogs may be written for hunters, but there is no guarantee that hunters are the only people reading them.
I also agree with Rex that most online predators are working the chat rooms and finding victims with whom they've had direct communication. Despite the experts' warnings, my research turned up no specific examples of the families of adult bloggers being targeted by individuals with whom the blogger had had no prior communications.
But from that, a whole new issue arises.
When I heard about the circumstances surrounding the Taylor Behl disappearance and murder two years ago, I resolved that meeting people via the Internet is never a good idea. Yet here I am now, planning the Outdoor Bloggers Summit, with a group of people I've met online but have never seen face-to-face. I've actually come to think of these folks as my friends!
As an adult, I feel confident that we can make this event a safe one. But I'm beginning to wonder about the example I'm setting for my kids. As they grow older and begin to use the Internet more it may be difficult to tell them to "do as I say and not as I do," when it comes to making acquaintances online.
But that will just have to be part of the education process. Since I've been working on this project, I've also started to talk with my kids in more depth about the old "don't talk to strangers" rule. They have to understand that just because someone knows a lot about me, doesn't make him my friend.
I hate the phrase "Don't trust anyone," but I used it anyway in a recent front porch conversation with my boys.
Still, we can't live our lives in fear.
I draw my inspiration from many different writers, but my absolute favorite outdoor writer is Field & Stream columnist Bill Heavey. Heavey's "A Sportsman's Life" column draws heavily on his family and personal life and makes it easy to get a pretty good idea of where he lives.
Stepping outside the world of hunting and fishing, I'm also a big fan of Washington Post sports writer and columnist-turned-Monday Night Football commentator Tony Korneiser. "Mr. Tony" has never been shy about talking about his family on his radio programs or in the Style section columns that made him famous.
In the end, writers are successful when they are passionate about their subject matter. I am passionate about hunting and fishing and even more so about my family.
About a year ago, I put my passions together in a five-gallon bucket, mixed them up, and this blog emerged. It has brought me (and my family) great joy, and I don't intend to stop anytime soon.
But I will always keep in mind that coiled serpents lie in the underbrush of the Internet and that a rabid animal may be waiting around any bend in the trail. As outdoor bloggers, we will continue down this trail, never letting our guard down, always watching the shadows for signs of danger.