Privacy and Security Online

In Week 5 of Intro to Digital Communications, we discussed media law, ethics, data security and privacy on the Internet. The class was tasked with finding an article related to any of the aforementioned topics. Mine was about the Snapchat photo leak that happened just last year. For those of you who don’t remember, hackers leaked 100,000 photos of mostly minors from a third-party application called SnapSaver.

But first, if you’re not familiar with the app called Snapchat, here’s a quick rundown of what it’s all about: Snapchat allows users to send and receive images and texts that instantly self-destruct and disappear within 10 seconds. The app stores each user’s email, phone and username and also keeps a log of the last 200 “snaps” that were sent or received, but no one is actually digging through it, supposedly. When a receiver screenshots your “snap,” to keep a memory of it, the sender is notified. All of this is supposed to protect our privacy, but does it?

Based on cases like the Snapchat situation, our class discussion sparked conversations about privacy and security online. Does it exist? What are current expectations about privacy online and are they reasonable?

While it’s true that Snapchat is an app that requires the trust of its consumers, Professor Strahler noted that not all of this “private information” is truly private. The primary set of laws that govern Snapchat’s ability to disclose user information lies within the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

The Act states that they may share information about users in response to legal processes with or required by any applicable law, rule, or regulation to investigate or remedy potential violations of user agreements, policies…and the safety of us, users, or others. In other words, Snapchat can and will share our information in certain legal situations.

And that’s not all. According to an NBC article entitled “Online privacy fears are real,” I found that there exists some truly frightening stories of individuals being stalked, facing identity theft and more. CEO of privacy technology firm Privada Inc Rick Jackson reminds us that “There are a lot more people tracking you than you think. The data world is a very powerful and lucrative marketplace with a lot of players involved.”

According to the article, Jackson “points to a Washington Post story that revealed that 11 pharmaceutical companies — including Pfizer Inc., SmithKline Beecham PLC, Glaxo Wellcome PLC – had formed an alliance and were tracking every click consumers made across their sites, then comparing notes. Consumers were never told.”

In addition, we’re reminded of how the Internet first came to be. It was created as a free and open resource, never designed to protect individuals’ privacy. Now, here we are. Fears rising.

The lesson here is we should never post, send, or forward anything online that we would regret later. While we live in a world where we are all arguably obsessed with using apps, social media and the Internet, we have to keep in mind that once something’s online, it’s logged forever.

In the article “What We Post Online Is Forever, and We Need a Reminder,” Inc. writer Meredith Fineman summed it up nicely: “It’s a lot easier to control the conversation than it is to change it,” which is something I also mentioned in class. As online users we are largely responsible for what exists online. While we can’t control what other people will post about us in certain situations, we can control what we post, send, and forward.

So, to answer the earlier question: Apps like Snapchat, sites like Facebook and platforms like WordPress all exist in the online space. While we may feel some sense of privacy in posting a “private blog post” or sending a disappearing “snap,” none of those items are truly private.

To avoid running into a mess in the future, remember this: Before you send it, think about how you’ll feel if it resurfaced 1 day, 1 month, 10 years from now. Will it make you regret it? Will it harm you? If so, don’t follow through.

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A Glance at the Digital Divide

This past week, I was reminded of the digital divide. The divide is a widening gap between different demographics of people who either have access, limited access or no access to communications technologies like computers, tablets and phones. I live in a community where all of my friends own a smartphone, a laptop, a desktop and even a tablet. But many people in the U.S. and around the world don’t even have access to those technologies. Here’s a look at some interesting numbers:

The Pew Research Center found that 64% of U.S. adults — nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population — own a smartphone. However, 10% of Americans who own a smartphone don’t even have Internet or a broadband connection.

Think about that for a second. 10% of Americans own a smartphone but don’t have basic Internet. 13% who have a household income of less than $30,000 claim to be “heavily dependent” on their smartphones while only 1% of those with a household income of $75,000+ feel the same.

This shows a tremendous shift in our cultural values. It used to be the case that we all wanted to have a computer and an Internet connection, but now having a smartphone is seemingly more important; even crucial. In fact, CNBC touched on this topic saying that smartphones are “lifelines” for today’s “poor Americans.”

The digital divide is apparent here in that only certain demographics of people, only certain communities view smartphones (a comm tech) as a “lifeline.” While those with higher income barely think the same. In fact, one could argue that high-income communities of people view certain technologies as mere accessories.

The Pew Research Center also found that “those with relatively low income and educational attainment levels, younger adults, and non-whites are especially likely to be ‘smartphone-dependent.'” I’m only focusing on smartphones as one form of comm tech because most readers can understand how smartphones are an integral part of our daily lives. However, it’s important to note that there are many other forms of communications technologies; smartphones are not the only form.

Many might be wondering what exactly causes this digital divide. What factors contribute to this widening gap between populations, regions and communities?

  • Age and Race
  • Income
  • Education
  • Community/Region
  • Health

For example, if you are born into a wealthy family and grow up in a homogenous community where families are just like yours and there is little diversity, chances are you’ll grow up being exposed to all different kinds of communications technologies; you’ll have the opportunity to learn how to use it at a young age and, if you’re in the U.S., you’ll be part of the 64% of Americans who own a smartphone.

Why? Because you have the financial support and access to resources and information necessary to have a smartphone and know how to use it, too.

But what we tend to forget is this: There are 7 billion (and counting) people in the world and, as of last year, only 2.1 billion have access to a smartphone. That means nearly 5 billion people are left in the dark. It’s been predicted that an estimated 6+ billion people will eventually have a smartphone by 2020 but until then it’s important to address how we can help accelerate access to comm tech.

In class, we discussed ways to narrow this digital divide. Here are some key topics of discussion:

  • Improve accessibility by addressing knowledge gaps and poor infrastructure in public education systems.
  • Implement community programs to bring affordable Internet to high-needs areas to help fill the void of lack of information in high-needs areas and improve digital literacy.
  • Provide free resources to impoverished communities that can’t afford it so they can be exposed to comm tech and learn how to use it. Introduce basic skills and tech to those who are less educated on comm tech information.

Before I go, I want to note that the digital divide is due in large part to the economic divide between populations and communities. It’s important to understand the economic divide in trying to fully understand the digital divide.

So, how do you think we should narrow the digital divide gap?

Social Media Platforms

Words with Friends, Venmo, Yelp, and even Netflix — what do these all have in common? They’re social media platforms. They allow us to instantly engage with others via an Internet connection.

But, wait. What are were the precursors to social media? Based off of this past week’s lectures and readings, I learned that some of the precursors to social media include bulletin board systems, online services and instant messaging (and avatars!). Remember when AOL Instant Messaging was our go-to form of online communication?

All of that eventually led to the platforms we can’t imagine living without: social media. Believe it or not, some of the first types of social networking sites were online dating sites and forums. Fun fact: The first real social media site was called SixDegrees, created in 1997, which allowed users to connect with others and form contact and friend lists. LiveJournal showed up in the late 90s and then Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace and, of course, Facebook.

In the brief time period between the mid-90s and early 2000s, I can see how these social media platforms changed with our cultural values. For instance, Dr. Strahler noted that forums, which were popular in the early 90s, signified the values of the online community at the time — participatory culture. This is when we seek feedback from others and interact by commenting, and sharing ideas and experiences.

LiveJournal, which launched in 1999, was simply a platform for users to write about their experiences online. There wasn’t a ton of customization or multimedia options at the time. Now, we can post and record videos on social media sites. It’s not just about the copy anymore.

When Facebook first started, users spent a lot of time writing on their friends’ walls and using Facebook as a way to stay in touch with friends via wall-to-wall conversations. Now, users rarely have conversations on friends’ walls and, instead, use Facebook as a platform to display what they deem are important and valuable in their life.

Additionally, users private message friends using Facebook chat instead of Facebook walls. (Facebook Chat was the fifth most used mobile app with 43.1% of users in a ComScore mobile app data survey using the app. That number surpassed the popularity of Google Maps, Instagram and even Twitter, so it gives you an idea of how popular this social app has grown to be.)

To see how social media continues to impact our lives, Dr. Strahler had us view this powerful video: 

One of the biggest takeaways was how seniors (yes, our grandmothers and fathers!) are the fastest growing demographic to sign up for Twitter. I never imagined that my grandmother would be the latest person to tweet something out to the world. Not only that, but what I thought was a 10-second attention span for all online users is now a 7-second attention span. Our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish which has an 8-second attention span!

What does this tell me? That our brains are processing an exorbitant amount of information through social media platforms and the media. It also looks like the gap between generations is, in some cases, becoming more narrow when it comes to using social media. And while our cultural media consumption values and needs have shifted from oral communication to written communication and now multimedia visual storytelling, so too have the user interfaces and features of the social media sites we know, love and obsess over today.