Forum Best Practices: Protecting the crown jewels


For a long time the forums have been the last resort for people with high urgency questions, ...
And that's fine, the forums are there to help each other...

But in many of these highly critical situations, people are at the end of their breath, they don't know where to go, or have tried many different things without result, a lot of frustrations have been piling up...

As people need help, on the spot, right now, ASAP... things must go fast.

You can imagine the physical symptoms like you've experienced it yourself, right?
So, what happens next?

Don't know where to ask the question, hesitation how to ask the question, "which forum to choose?", what the appropriate subtopic, rush to the TechNet Forums page to find the right forum, try to find the appropriate tech forum (if you did not save your favorite forum yet), fail to find your forum, just pick a forum, post your question on the wrong from, have some issues to find the right keywords, missing screenshots, is the explanation clear enough for your audience to understand, posting an all upper case shout, you forget to mention what you have investigated already ...

And in essence you can almost see the despair dripping from this forum post...

But in essence a lot of things go wrong when you rush...
You post to the wrong forum (we almost got daily off-topic posts on the Wiki forum), you ask the wrong questions. You don't provide enough information to have the essential troubleshooting completed.
Conclusion: you're shooting yourself in the foot, from the start. Because you block your audience from answering the questions..., without asking some more questions first. You lose even more time...

Or on the opposite, you have been troubleshooting the situation thoroughly, have some screenshots, have some detailed event details, ... and you dump them straight away on the forums.
But this is pretty similar as running butt naked on the streets (the mental picture is more than enough, right?), the consequences either: aka "too much information",  literally a violation of your privacy, and more important publishing PII (Personally identifiable information) of your company or customer is legally a major issue...

This way you put yourself at risk, not only on the TechNet platform (as you risk to get banned and loosing all your access to TechNet/MSDN community), but also any legal actions against you for leaking/posting PII that can lead to cyberattacks or security issues with the system you manage (owned by your employer or your customer)... So your job is at stake here... Pretty serious stuff, isn't it?
Conclusion: you're shooting yourself in the foot... again.

Therefore, some hints and tips to avoid the pitfalls of overdocumenting your case.

First of all, keep breathing and THINK.
Secondly: THINK AGAIN.
Think what is essential for the question without exposing yourself.

What is essential, but has no PII info?

  • Product information
  • Build numbers, versions
  • Error messages, error codes

The following must NEVER EVER NEVER be posted:

  • passwords
  • accounts and personal information used with these passwords, like account names, logins, mail addresses
  • address information
  • physical location
  • ...

The next package of information needs thorough investigation and must be anonymized before posting:

  • system names
  • host names,
  • IP addresses
  • network names, FQDN,
  • domain names
  • account names of any user and service accounts
  • (anything else?) ...

And due to the critical nature of the info, it's also highly advised to mask any date and time info (by replacing it with a fake date/time stamp).

MOST IMPORTANT: all this does not only apply to text you publish, but also to images.
Mask or scramble the PII from images before you post.
(also think about the meta data in your pictures... see the picture properties with geolocation info, date & time stamps, ownership info...)

What's the reason for this?
In short: it does not take advanced technical skills or social engineering skills to use this information and go try hacking the system or use the information to damage the target system (or worse: damage you). In most of the cases the questions asked are about technical issues, so you already give a first hint where to start hacking...

IMPORTANT: Even when it's too late, you can always pull a forum post from thread you started (else report the issue to the forum support team). Or go back to the forum post and remove sensitive information.

But you want to avoid that in the first place, so...

Call to action

  • prepare your post, gather detailed technical information. It will help to get things sorted.
  • if it takes more than one paragraph of text, prepare your post offline.
  • add a good structure to your post
  • have very clear questions to ask
  • try to limit your questions to one per thread
  • review your post at least twice before you post
  • better have a second opinion before you post
  • take screenshots where possible
  • remove PII by masking the info (replace PII with fake info)
  • In worst case scenario, remove your forum post, if you realize that it could hurt...

 

Just remember that you need to ask the right question to get the right answer.
Protect yourself. That's were it starts.

See you on the TechNet forums/MSDN forums!
I wish you a safe posting and a lots of feedback to your cry for help.

Peter

Find me on LinkedIn, TechNet, MSDN and TechNet Wiki

Comments (5)

  1. pituach says:

    Great blog post Peter!
    I love it.
    Usually we focus only on "what you should post". Focusing on "what not to post" is great and important.
    It can be a preview to all the posts that gives a list of what you should post whenever you ask a question, and how to ask a question.

    >> "rush to the TechNet Forums page to find the right forum..."
    So true! And in the MSDN forums it is much bigger issue to find the right place to post, since there is no "Home Page" with list of forums by category & topics!
    This remind me that I wrote an article for this reason 🙂
    http://social.technet.microsoft.com/wiki/contents/articles/34901.list-of-forums-by-languages-categories-and-field-of-discussions.aspx

  2. pituach says:

    >> TIP!
    There is a forum for"“which forum to choose?"
    https://social.msdn.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/home?forum=whatforum

    By the way, glad to be the first one who voted the post and added first comment (and second) 🙂

  3. b.aref says:

    thanks a lot, that was helpful

  4. Sabah Shariq says:

    Great blog post Peter 🙂
    Nicely explain for the new member how they can ask a question with proper information so they can get response quickly. I do see a lot of question in the forum where members are asking about their issue in a single line without giving any code snippet or some other context so that we can tell why that asker getting that issue. Then we have to ask them again to give more information like code snippet or screenshot of the error they are having so, we can understand what the nature of error. This takes time like then we have to wait for the original poster to came back again and see that post for giving information. If they ask the question by giving details information about their issue then original poster will get solution quickly. This blog post is a great resource how to ask question in forum.

  5. HI Peter, Nice post, I think we should make this blog as one sticky post in each and every forum so that people can get valuable insights well in time before they post the question !!

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