You’re being watched. If you’re reading this on a computer, that is. You probably found the magazine using Google, which tracks all searches and monitors the messages of Gmail account holders in order to provide targeted advertising. Did you upload some photos to Facebook from last night’s gala dinner or house party? Most likely, your boss can see those even if you’re not Facebook friends. Is the Internet truly the Wild West? Meaning, can you say whatever you want about anyone without regard to the truth? Or do the laws of libel apply?
Like most people, I never thought much about it…until I started to really think about it. From web browser histo- ries to cookies and auto-fill account information, everything we do is being seen and recorded by the money-generating, idea-spreading beast that we call the Internet.
We’ve all heard the horror stories of jilted exes who try to embarrass former lovers or get them fired from their jobs. If you think it couldn’t happen to you, you’re wrong. In the course of doing the research for this piece, I learned about some pretty despicable acts committed by people who were motivated by fear or a lack of self-esteem. But the ugly de- tails are beside the point.
The Obama administration recently threw its weight behind a so-called “Consumer Bill of Rights” that lists the guiding principles of what people are entitled to expect when they use the Internet. Right now, the document serves as more of a voluntary guide rather than anything enforce- able by law, although that could change in the future. It was also announced that Google, Microsoft, AOL and other web behemoths have agreed to respect a “Do Not Track” setting in web browsers. Even so, currently only Firefox of- fers this option.
Of course, the instances of cyberbullying and harass- ment call attention to the need for uniform laws (backed up by fines) that protect consumers and prevent compa- nies from overstepping boundaries. The case of 18-year- old Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge not long af- ter his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a web camera to record his embracing another man—and tweeted about it. In March of this year, a jury found Ravi guilty of most charges, and he faces up to 10 years in jail and possible deportation, A few years ago, I had to block someone on Facebook who had posted something very nasty on my wall. It’s sufficient to say that I felt threatened and slandered. And as much as I have complained about its ever-shifting and often hard-to-follow privacy settings, in instances where I have needed its assistance—the company came through.
What’s the solution? Read the fine print, always. Examine closely the privacy page on Facebook to see exactly to whom you’re revealing your life. It could be the general public, which on Facebook means some 500 million people and counting. Or it could be just your friends. Go through your friend list and weed people out: It’s liberating and forces you to think about (and maybe even spend actual in-person time with) your friends.
My Top 6 Tips
1. Install “Do Not Track” software from Abine, an online privacy agency. It will completely change your browsing experience (for the better) by showing you exactly which companies are monitoring you on every site you visit. It will then block them. The best part? It’s a free download. http://abine.com/
2. Don’t put your full birth date on your social-networking profiles. Identity thieves love to mine that information. Also, don’t put your phone number on your Facebook profile—unless you’re one of those rare people who only has 30 friends on the site.
3. Be careful about what apps you download or give permission to on Facebook. These can also collect lots of personal information about you and then sell that data to some other foreign entity.
4. Use distinctive user names and passwords. Change them regularly. Don’t be lazy and use the same password for your bank account, your Facebook profile, and your Amazon profile.
5. If someone requesting to be friends with you on Facebook seems suspicious (you have no mutual friends, he’s located in Korea, his profile photo is unrecognizable, ect. assume he is up to no good.
6. If you’ve been friend requested multiple times by someone with whom you have no desire to interact—in real life or online—block that person. And report him to Facebook. This link will get you started: https://www.facebook.com/help/