A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing – especially when it can stretch a long, long way
THE ‘surveillance society’ is often criticised for keeping a watch on everything we do. From CCTV to credit and loyalty cards, complete strangers often know far more about what you get up to than your best friend.
Data protection commissions exist to protect us from data misuse, but they are fighting a new enemy which gives away your passwords and your family details and which even knows what you did last summer. This enemy is you.
The evolution of social networking, personal and genealogy websites encourages individuals to open their lives to the web, but Jersey’s data protection commissioner, Emma Martins (pictured), worries that people just don’t realise how open this
information is to the world – and to your next-door neighbour.
‘We have begun to almost trust the internet because we’re so familiar with it. It has made us complacent,’ she said. ‘The internet is a valued tool and people should enjoy its facilities, but they need to understand the potential repercussions as well.’
Drunken college exploits, comments about employers and pictures taken with mobile phones will stay on the web long after you have grown out of them, resurrected by the simplest search on your name. ‘What you put online today could be accessed by a potential employer tomorrow or in 30 years’ time,’ said Mrs Martins.
Even if you delete it, nothing ever completely disappears from the internet. Most servers keep permanent archives – as do global security services. Some search engines update only every few weeks and anything can be copied from website to website. Even if you reconsider and remove pictures or text, once it has been put online it will always exist somewhere.
Welsh families caught up in the recent spate of suicides among their young discovered this when pictures of their children appeared across tabloid front pages. When parents complained, they were told that the photos and memorials from friends and family were taken from the young people’s old web pages and were therefore free to be used wherever the newspapers wished. British courts have already ruled that online information and photographs can be used without any further permissions being sought or needed.
Mrs Martins warns about the risks of children’s unsupervised social networking pages: ‘Many parents refuse to let their children play on the streets because of the perceived risks, but they have no idea what they are putting online about themselves.’
Parents should be just as worried, and just as informed, about cyberspace. Online images showing school uniforms, house numbers and family members are ‘like leaving your photo album on a bus’.
‘The answer is proactivity. Once the information goes online it is impossible to get it back completely, and when things go wrong, they go very wrong. Kids will rebel, so it has to be a parent’s role to advise, and it is definitely a parental duty to be aware of what your child is up to, the risks that exist and the best way to mitigate them,’ she said.
The younger generation’s superior internet knowledge provides a great opportunity for getting involved and letting them teach you about the real, rather than the imagined, risks. Work with children to create something ‘like everybody else has’ but something that you’re happy with as well. If your child wants to put a picture on their site, by offering to help you can keep an eye on what they are wearing and what’s visible in the background.
‘Parents have to be more empowered to challenge what their children are doing online by knowing and explaining the risks and putting them in perspective,’ said Mrs Martins.
‘This means that if something happens online your child is far more likely to come to you with any worries if they know they’re not just going to get a telling off.
Mrs Martins insists that parents must have the final word: ‘Look at the risks and work within the guidelines, but sometimes, you simply have to be prepared to say no.’
The current trend for snapping photos everywhere leaves many people uncomfortable that their picture could be online at any time. It is difficult to say no when a colleague is accusing you of being a misery, but honesty is the best policy.
Mrs Martins confirms the data protection stance: ‘Everyone should have the opportunity to opt out of appearing in photographs or publicity for any event or club they belong to, especially now that information is often worldwide on the net as well as on paper (which is also covered under Jersey data protection laws).
‘There are safe ways to enjoy the internet. It’s wonderful for communication and research, but use your knowledge and understand the risks.’
Keep in mind the rule of unintended consequences from anything you put online about yourself. Information about siblings, hobbies and social activities could convince a youngster that the person they are messaging is a
12-year-old girl, or convince you that your internet date is your perfect partner because he or she ‘likes everything you like’.
Stopping the internet would be like trying to hold back the tide, but remember that people can be just as devious online as they are in the outside world. Think about what you are posting before you do it, and make use of privacy settings and safeguards on sites and programmes you can buy for your computer.
Mrs Martins has one more analogy for us to consider: ‘Think of information you put on the internet like writing your details onto the back of a postcard – in seconds it is open to everyone who gets near it.’
From someone who spends her life unravelling data disasters, that is very good advice.
A web search for ‘internet security’ will uncover some horror stories of misused data and its consequences, but there is also a wealth of advice and programmes to keep all ages safer online. Useful sites include:
• www.bbc.co.uk/webwise, a free BBC Internet course for young and old.
• www.thinkuknow.co.uk, web safety information with sections worded for children of different ages.
• www.microsoft.com/protect/family/activities/social.mspx, general advice and suggested house rules for internet use.l www.dataprotection.gov.je, Jersey’s data protection site with general information, downloadable leaflets on all aspects of data protection and the web and contact details for further advice.