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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