Tuesday, 29 January 2013

On privacy in cyber space


Is it a contradiction in terms to be an advocate of social media and yet be concerned about privacy?  I am.  And not just because I work in the world of information security.  I am also a citizen and a parent, a brother, cousin, son and a member of a number of social organisations…  In recent years, as the growth of Facebook and LinkedIn (my two social media favourites) has continued apace, I have noticed that not only members of my generation and younger using these services, but my parents' generation are as well.

Interestingly, there are those within my profession who rage against social media as something dangerous and invasive.  True, most default privacy settings are very public indeed and it can take a little effort to narrow the audience to people you actually want to talk to.  My view is that the effort is worthwhile as the benefits of being able to keep in touch with friends and colleagues all over the world far outweigh the risks I choose to take with my private information.

Having a young son also helps me to keep it real.  He, like most of his generation, is frequently to be found on his MacBook, iPhone or XBox, playing, chatting with friends - and when I'm lucky with me as well!  I want to encourage this, but I also want to protect him from the potential dangers of careless use of the worldwide web and especially of social media.  We regularly check the privacy settings on those few sites he belongs to and ensure that anything he posts is visible only to his direct contacts and, for some actions, their contacts.  Nothing is ever made open to everyone.  He also knows, from the bitter experience of some of his friends and relatives, that people we know in real life can be quite unpleasant when online.  So he only connects with people he knows and likes and understands that it is not cool to have a million connections with people you don't know.

We also chat, on occasion, about things other people post online and why they might have done so… usually things they will later regret when their mother or grandmother sees the post!  He understands that he is never to leave his computer unlocked when he is not using it and to protect his iPhone with a passkey.

So, whilst we both make some information about ourselves available to connections on social media outlets, we don't share anything which we wouldn't want my mother (or each other!) to see… I don't claim any kind of special sense of propriety in this, it seems to me to be common sense.

Many years ago, my then employer sent me to be trained in talking to the media; we covered print, radio and TV.  Not only did I discover that I have a great face for radio, look a little like a rabbit in the headlights on TV and my voice sounds completely different to what I hear in my head.  I also learned that one should avoid saying or doing anything in public which you would not want reported on the front page of the newspaper or at the top of the broadcast news headlines.  I believe that social media can be a force for positive change in society, but only when the communities involved take their own and their contacts' privacy as a personal responsibility.  The tools are there and are not difficult to understand or to use… so take a look the next time you are online and make sure you aren't broadcasting your status updates to a billion people around the world!