A Primer For Safety And Privacy In The Digital Age
by By Jenny Kincaid Boone With Dominique Benjamin, Susan Gill, And Fairen Horner.
A PLACE IN THE SUN: During spring semester 2017, a first-year student takes advantage of the unseasonably warm temperatures to study outside on the Blacksburg campus. (Logan Wallace)
INSTAGRAM, ZOOM, GOOGLE MEET, MARCO POLO, FACEBOOK, TWITTER, SNAPCHAT, TIKTOK, SKYPE. THERE ARE A PLETHORA OF WAYS TO COMMUNICATE ONLINE.
WITH THE ADVENT OF THE PANDEMIC, RELYING ON REMOTE ACCESS FOR EVERYTHING FROM WORK AND SCHOOL TO SOCIALIZING, HEALTH CARE, AND SHOPPING HAS BECOME ESSENTIAL TO DAY-TO-DAY ROUTINES. THESE ONLINE EXPERIENCES ALSO HAVE OPENED A WINDOW INTO PERSONAL LIFE THAT ISN’T EASY TO SHUT.
Aaron Brantly and his kids love Legos—specifically Star Wars sets. After occasional online searches to find the best ones, Brantly now receives unsolicited advertisements for the latest Stars Wars Lego creations in his social media feed. He understands that’s not a coincidence.
But is the increased marketing good or bad? That depends. Many of the ads are for deals that Brantly says are too good to be true, stressing that proper vetting is important before a purchase.
In the online world, humans are considered products, not consumers, explained Brantly, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech who directs the Tech4Humanity Lab. The lab focuses on the impact of technology on the human condition.
CLEAN UP YOUR GAME
KEEP THESE TIPS IN MIND WHEN SHARING, POSTING, AND TWEETING:
“When you click on anything from a video to a product, you are helping that company build a robust database on you, your likes, your dislikes,” he said. “The social media vendors know exactly who you are. Just because you are in your own home doesn’t mean that you are engaging in privacy-conscious activities if you are on social media or on the web.”
In fact, Brantly suggested that it’s nearly impossible to maintain a private life if you use social media and the Internet. Add the coronavirus pandemic that forced the world to turn to virtual options for everything—working, teaching, learning, family gatherings, happy hours, and more—and all of a sudden, people are living their lives online.
Although across-the-board e-privacy may be hard to maintain, ultimately, each person must decide what information they want to divulge online, said several Virginia Tech faculty who are experts in social media communications.
KNOW WHAT IS PUBLIC
Maintaining some level of privacy online starts with understanding which personal information is truly private. Mike Horning, an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Virginia Tech, suggested that people review the information that others can see publicly in their individual social media accounts. For example, some users don’t realize that others can see the comments they write on a friend’s Facebook photos or understand that a photo in which they are tagged may show up elsewhere.
Horning said that people should check the settings on social media accounts and adjust privacy or security options to ensure that certain information is more secure based on who can see it.
Horning also stressed that biographical details listed on a social account are public. And that information could be shared.
“The thing that people don’t realize is, if you share a little bit over here on social media, it’s not too hard for people to make assumptions,” Horning said. “There’s the privacy question about how much information you want to give to these social media companies. Then, there’s the privacy question of the degree that you want to share your information with perfect strangers.”
BE CAUTIOUS OF CYBERTHEFT
More time spent using technology naturally makes anyone more susceptible to having their personal information stolen, Brantly said.
With the large volume of people working and learning from home during the pandemic, cyberattacks have increased. In particular, the incidents of ransomware attacks, which occur when cybercriminals hold computer data or a network hostage until a ransom is paid, has risen, according to MonsterCloud, a cybersecurity firm.
To guard against attacks, remember to apply updates when available, avoid sharing personal information, such as passwords, and do not click on links in emails, Brantly said.
Also, he suggested that people activate two-factor authentication whenever possible to ensure increased security for certain networks and websites. This extra security measure often requires people to verify identity with a mobile phone. Most major services, including Google, Apple, and Yahoo, offer this feature, and some workplaces require it. Although the practice may seem a little inconvenient, the increased layer of protection is worthwhile.
“Enabling these types of features increases the time that you can get into accounts by about 30 seconds, but it will protect you,” Brantly said.
Aside from digital threats, people also should be conscious of on-the-ground attacks, particularly as a result of sharing certain kinds of photos or personal details on social media accounts.
For example, to guard against home theft, Brantly discouraged sharing photos of an out-of-town vacation spot until the travelers have returned. Check-ins or posts with details that indicate the writer’s whereabouts may alert would-be thieves that a home or business is unattended. Also, neighborhood social media accounts may reveal information about homeowners that isn’t intended for public consumption. Even games and social media challenges are used to collect personal information, so think twice before participating. The ninth photo in a digital library may offer strangers a peek at that new television or computer. The answers in a get-to-know-your-Facebook-friends questionnaire may offer up password prompts or clues to personal information.
It’s important to know that with any online post, information can be shared without your knowledge, Brantly said.
“It is possible for people to screenshot; it’s possible for people to share it [information] outside your social media group, or if you use hashtags, the post will move beyond your user groups,” he said.
The thing that people don’t realize is, if you share a little bit over here on social media, it’s not too hard for people to make assumptions. There’s the privacy question about how much information you want to give to these social media companies. Then, there’s the privacy question of the degree that you want to share your information with perfect strangers.”
Associate Professor of Multimedia Journalism
SOCIAL MEDIA KNOWS YOU
Choosing to have a social media account is an automatic agreement to share some personal information.
Megan Duncan, assistant professor in the School of Communication, described personal information as a type of currency. Users offer that currency in exchange for free online services, such as staying connected to family and friends via Facebook.
“Part of what keeps society together has to be a little bit of social trust,” Duncan said.
Certain apps, such as Google maps, even require that users share their geographic location for the information to be useful.
“That’s sort of the Catch-22,” Horning said. “It’s hard to totally opt out of this. You can, but you lose out on a lot of advantages.”
Ultimately, users must decide if sharing their personal data is worth the payoff. After all, Duncan said, she would rather see advertisements for items that she likes than for products that don’t interest her.
“We all have to decide what we can live with,” Horning said. “Most of this data is being collected to advertise to you. If you’re okay with that, then it’s not something you need to worry about.”
THINK BEFORE YOU POST
When Duncan was growing up, her neighborhood had a party phone line. Neighbors could hear others’ phone conversations. Her parents always reminded her to watch what she said if she talked through the party line.
“Don’t confess to murder on the phone, you never know who’s listening,” they would joke with her.
That same reminder applies to social media, Duncan said. In her classes, she discusses research on self-censorship on Facebook, which illustrates the number of times that a person writes a post and then deletes it before submitting it.
Before social media, people often did not know what friends thought about certain subjects, such as politics.
“It’s not necessarily that we are more polarized, it’s that we have more knowledge about a private side of our everyday acquaintance that we used to not know about,” Duncan said, suggesting that thinking before posting is a good rule to employ. “We all have that moment when we want to express ourselves, but we can take a breath and think ‘Is expressing myself in this way really going to be worth it?’”
SOCIAL MEDIA HAS SPAWNED AN ASSOCIATED LANGUAGE. HERE ARE A FEW DEFINITIONS OF SOME OF THE MORE PREVALENT WORDS CONNECTED TO PRIVACY AND SECURITY.
CLICKBAIT: Clickbait is content that is written specifically to attract as many clicks as possible. Just about any type of content can be considered clickbait, but the technique usually involves a piece of content that intentionally over-promises or misrepresents in order to pull users onto a particular website.
CYBERSTALKING: Cyberstalking is stalking that takes place using electronic devices or the internet. It is the technological harassment directed toward a specific individual. There are several forms of cyberstalking that can take place, including:
• Placing orders for delivery in someone else's name. Gathering personal information on the victim.
• Spreading false rumors.
• Encouraging others to join in the harassment. Threatening harm through email.
• Creating fear and paranoia for someone else. Hacking into online accounts.
CYBERBULLYING: Cyberbullying, or cyberharassment, is bullying with the use of digital technologies. It can take place on social media, messaging platforms, gaming platforms, and mobile phones. It is repeated behaviour, aimed at scaring, angering, or shaming those who are targeted. Examples include:
• Spreading lies about or posting embarrassing photos of someone on social media.
• Sending hurtful messages or threats via messaging platforms.
• Impersonating someone and sending mean messages to others on their behalf.
LURKER/LURKING: A lurker is someone who browses social media, social media profiles, and forums, but without interacting or posting anything themselves. While lurking, people simply observe and follow the posts and interactions of others.
NSFW: Not safe for work (NSFW) is used as a warning before a link that contains anything that would not be okay to look at if you’re at work. These links usually contain inappropriate images, profanity, or anything else you probably wouldn’t want your supervisor to see you looking at.
SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCER: A social media influencer is a user who has established credibility in a specific industry, has access to a huge audience, and can persuade others to act based on their recommendations. An influencer may be anyone from a blogger to a celebrity to an online entrepreneur.
TROLL/TROLLING: Trolling is defined as creating online discord by starting quarrels or upsetting people by posting inflammatory or off-topic messages. A social media troll is someone who purposely shares something controversial in order to evoke a negative response. The best advice is, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Just block them and move forward.