Computer Privacy and Security—It's All Up To You

You may have to change your outlook.

You may have missed it, but in mid-March Facebook announced that it was updating its “Statements of Rights and Responsibilities.” It had a one-week comment period to discuss proposed changes. While many of the policy updates were minor, perhaps the biggest change was the wholesale change in the language it used to describe its policies. All references to “Privacy Policy” are now changing to “Data Use Policy.” As your English teacher surely tried to emphasize, words matter.

Facebook will continue to have “Privacy Settings” but the change from Privacy Policy to Data Use Policy reemphasizes that they use your data as part of the user agreement. You use their product, they use your data. You can adjust how much data they use, but they are not in the business of protecting your privacy.

The Right To Privacy

Privacy, as set out by the Constitution, is a protection from government action, not a right between individuals and corporations. I have no right of privacy from gossip spread by my friends or colleagues. Doctors, pharmacies, hospitals have to follow laws ensuring medical information privacy but stores and websites are free to sell whatever data they have on my shopping patterns. They are only restricted by applicable laws and the user agreements (contracts) that I can choose to accept when I decide to shop there.

When Google announced their own changes to their policies, I made a choice to be more judicious in how I use their products. They gave clear instructions on how to clear data gathered on me and how to avoid sharing information. We all need to understand that these are businesses and the cost of using their “free” products is the sharing of my information.

On Security

You lock your house, you lock your car, and you don’t leave your wallet in plain sight while you step away. This doesn’t mean that you will never be robbed, but you don’t make it easy for thieves. When you apply these real world lesions to the virtual world, take a similar approach.

  • Lock your door. Do have a firewall set up on your home network. Do have strong passwords. Do have anti-virus software installed.
  • Know the neighborhood. When you are in unknown environments, don’t be as trusting. If you go looking for “free” software, “free” music or “free” adult entertainment, you are in the wrong side of town. If you are in a town of thieves, watch your step.
  • Keep things in perspective. You aren’t likely to use a padlock to protect your lunch in the company refrigerator (though you might be tempted) but you also aren’t leaving cash on your desk when you head out to replace your lunch when it is stolen. Use easy to remember passwords at news sites or other low-security situations. If it is your bank, go hard-core on the secure passwords.
  • Keep your senses about you. Phishing emails are looking to trick you into providing financial information by pretending to be someone else. Use the sniff test to see how legitimate financial emails smell. Don’t be afraid to contact the institution via phone or in person to ask questions. Never follow links in an email if you have suspicions.
  • Have insurance. Cars are stolen, houses catch fire. Protect your data by having a backup. Use credit cards instead of your checkbook or debit cards when shopping online to limit your liability and to access more protections.
  • Watch your property. Know your rights when your bank account is compromised. You should check your accounts frequently to ensure that there hasn’t been any fraud. Online thieves will often do test transactions in small amounts to see if the accounts are legitimate and frankly, to see if you notice. Financial institutions can help you stop the theft if you notify them in time. Don’t let theft go unnoticed.

Dick Kennedy March 28, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Jean always has good advice. I would just reinforce the point about "phishing"--these emails can look very authentic and appear to be from a bank or other company that you already are dealing with. So when you get an email asking for any kind of sensitive information--especially financial information--don't reply to it or follow any links in it. Instead call the company or send an email in which you put in an address that you know is legitimate.
Jean Westcott March 28, 2012 at 12:54 PM
I received an excellently crafted email from "Verizon" yesterday. Actual addresses, copied format & images, hovered over images that all had VZW urls, but the "update your information" and "enroll in Autopay" were links to a .be and .ru website. The crooks have all the incentives, so we have to keep on our toes.
Richard Gordon March 28, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Good post, Jean. Love the backtrack to the US Constitution. It's what I tell my Computer Ethics students when we talk about privacy, the law, and technology. As a comment on your comment, we are dealing with a flood of phishing scams like the one you mention. We finally just started posting the worst of them in a blog: http://sites.udel.edu/phishing/ I'm still amazed at how many people fall for these crooks' scams.... Have scheduled a shoutout via twitter (@ITatUD) linking back to your article. Thanks!
Jean Westcott March 28, 2012 at 10:49 PM
Thanks Richard, educating people through real phishing emails is terrific. Soon I will write about website pages that make it difficult to navigate away from--another bane of life on the net.
Amanda M. Socci, Freelance Writer March 29, 2012 at 09:55 AM
Hi Jean: I enjoyed this article. Clever way of teaching people to protect themselves and their assets virtually. Thanks for your practical computer advice.
Beth Jarvis March 29, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Hi Jean---I enjoy reading your posts and learn something new from each of your columns. You have a wonderful ability to write creatively and informatively about IT matters in a way that is both interesting and accessible.
Yvone April 14, 2012 at 08:06 AM
Great Blog I add this post to my bookmarks
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