[This post was originally sent as an email newsletter to our Digital Detox participants.]

Written by Joe Antonioli, DLINQ Senior Curricular Innovation Strategist

This academic year my colleague Amy Slay and I have been crafting Defense Against the Digital Dark Arts conversations, discussions about data privacy and security. Our goal is to get people to think about how they manage their own digital data, and how their practices can affect the privacy and security of others. I’ve had the opportunity to lead a discussion on this topic for a class, and this was the story I told as we started our conversation:

I walked out of my house with a large broom to clean off my car on the morning of January 22, 2019. Over a foot of snow had fallen, and I found it easier to use a long-handled broom to clean off my car than the flip side of a scraper. The car was running, still plugged in, and the heat melted the snow particles the broom had missed.

There were a number of cars on the road during my commute to Middlebury, most of them traveling north towards the Burlington area, but a few were headed south with me. Everything stood out against the snow, especially driving habits. I came up on a Corolla while traveling the ridge, its tires sliding back and forth as it exerted itself up the hill. I grumbled as I kept my distance, wondering why someone in Vermont would not have snow tires on their car in January. As we crept forward towards our destinations, a Ford pickup truck came up behind us and passed both of us on a curve. Watching him pass out of sight over the next hill, I took my turn and let both vehicles fade out of sight, but still thinking about how much my security on the road was dependent on the choices of others. The Corolla could have slid sideways across the road, the truck could have met a car coming the other way; both actions could have caused me to slam on my breaks and lose control in the slick conditions.

What does driving on a snowy road in Vermont and data security have in common?

Every internet-enabled computer we own, whether it is in our hand, on our desk, or in our kitchen, is connected to every other computer. Our lives are linked by cables and wireless streams of data that are moving to and from our devices. As more and more of our lives are being tracked and shared with people that have been categorized as “friend,” we need to pay attention to our interconnectedness, and as Amy Slay writeswe must recognize the deeply relational DNA of privacy.” In other words, “Your privacy and security is dependent on the actions of others, and they are dependent on you.”

What does that mean for social media users in practice? For example, I did not participate in the 10 Year Challenge, in fact I have stopped participating in most of the Facebook-initiated memes. I start to feel queasy when I think about someone being denied insurance because facial recognition, using data that I supplied, was used to determine they were a risk because of early signs of aging. Here are a few other examples from the last 10 years that illustrate the unintended consequences of the choices that people make in digital spaces:

  • Facebook users added thisisyourdigitallife personality quiz to their account, which led to Cambridge Analytica harvesting data from their friends lists – including from people who had not elected to participate in the quiz.
  • Webcamgate: The Lower Merion School District collected 56,000 photos using security software on the school computers, some screenshots and some using the webcam. However the students were not informed that the security software was installed.
  • Google continued to collect Location History even when it was turned off. People had made the choice to not be tracked, but the service was still tracking them.

So, what can you do to protect yourself and others? See below for a few suggestions.

Take Action

Put on your snow tires and clean off your car

  • Use a password manager to avoid using simple passwords and using them for multiple accounts, making it easier to get to your information. I use 1Password. LastPass is very popular.
  • Look at your settings in all of your social media accounts. Understand who can see the information you share.

Defensive driving techniques

  • Get permission before tagging people in your photos, and please respect someone’s choice not to have their likeness and location shared.
  • Create groups to help you share information with the intended audience. Choose the proper group when you post to your social media account.
  • Post your vacation photos when you get home to avoid giving away details about your location and the fact that your house or apartment is not occupied.

Check the weather conditions and see if the town has performed the proper snow removal 

  • Read the terms of service and privacy policies. Pay careful attention to the areas of the policy where they describe what data they are collecting, what they use it for, and what third party services they use to offer their service. Avoid services that access your contact list, and disable this access to protect the privacy and security of your family and friends.
  • Check the news and see if the social media service has had a security breach recently, and pay close attention to how they responded. Did they try to cover up the breach? Or did they explain the breach and how it happened, explaining the steps they are taking to make sure it did not happen again?
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