Day 10: Secure online communications | Your right to privacy

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, Orkut, or Hi5 are fun and offer ways to connect with people with whom you have things in common. They can also get people involved in a cause you care about. Social networking sites, like many digital spaces, can blur the boundary between the private and the public in interesting ways.

A lot of internet services request personal information such as name, age, location, sex etc upon subscription. Sometimes, it is really not necessary to disclose these information willingly. The networked nature of the internet means that your information on one space can easily be disseminated to others, and that your activities and identity can be tracked.

It is increasingly common to have video recording and camera functions on mobile phones. While this means that access to such technologies and their benefits becomes more affordable, it also means that users have to be more conscious of where these images will eventually end up.

For example, you may post a picture that you only want certain friends to see; for you it is something private to share with a few. But once you've posted it and allowed even limited access to it, you have no guarantees that the picture will remain private. What if your friend takes a screen shot, and shares it with others? Or downloads it, but does not use password protection on his/her computer, or protect the computer with an anti-virus? Even if the picture never leaves your computer, is your computer free from invasion?

There have been many cases of women's private photos going public on the web. Public photos are altered to “undress” women online. Or, given the ease of secret filming using mini-cams and mobile phones, many women have no awareness that they've been photographed. Still other women may enjoy showing intimate poses for all the world to see.

Awareness of how tracking can happen on our own computers is also important. Commercially available spy software such as Spy Agent can be purchased and installed on a home computer, which can enable another person to log all keystrokes. This includes email correspondence, password, surfing activity etc. For a domestic violence survivor, this could mean that searching for information is particularly precarious.

Our right to privacy is especially important in an age of ICT development and emphasis. ICT has tremendous transformative potential, but to better explore the possibilities, we need to be smart about the risks. Making decisions about where our images and information can end up over time in the internet should also be accompanied by knowing how to keep our data and identity secure.

Take back the tech! Empower yourself with information and knowledge on secure online communications.

Read the license, privacy and terms of agreement of any services you are signing up on, especially if you will share personal information in the space. In many social networking sites, once you upload content it no longer belongs to you – it is now part of the sites' database, and even if you delete it a copy may be reserved by the platform. You can also try doing a search with the name of the service and the term “privacy” and see if there are any concerns expressed by the community. Yes, these documents are boring and hard to understand, but if you ever have to file a complaint, they are binding.

Make up an identity. You don’t always have to completely disclose your full identity just to get a free email service. Try submitting a form with a pseudonym, invented address and age. The only probably harm is that some market research company will get their data wrong. Weigh that against your own right to privacy.

Do a web search on yourself. This is a good way to find out what kind of information about you is available online, or if someone is pretending to be you and posting personal information on different online spaces. You might try using your nickname and country and searching through images, too.
Install programmes like Spybot – Search & Destroy, that can detect spyware in your computer hard disk and registry.

Check out the “tech tips & tools” section for more handy information on how to better protect your security and privacy when communicating online.

Download and use the Take Back The Tech Portable Apps, especially if you share a computer. It has a collection of software designed to make your online communication safer.