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How Students Can Protect Their Digital Footprint

July 22, 2013
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Online privacy is on the minds of many especially following the recent developments with the Edward Snowden case—the NSA whistleblower that leaked the “Prism” project revealing that the federal government may look at our online data closer than previously thought. Regardless of the resolution to the case, it is evident that it has reinforced and strengthened people’s concerns with their online privacy.

Every person who has browsed the Internet has a digital footprint and has produced data with the potential to be mined. However, a person has the power to regulate who can see what, when, and where.  This is why college students and recent college grads should be highly cognizant of how they can protect themselves and make sure that the data they put out there not only portrays them in a positive light but that it also does not jeopardize their privacy.

We bank online, communicate via email, and share everyday life moments through Facebook and Google +. At any juncture of our web use, our information can be used in undesirable ways unless we become educated about where our data is, who has access to it, and if and when it will be destroyed.

University of Colorado’s Dr. Janet Corral, Professor of Educational Informatics, “[encourages] students to better understand their privacy settings and who has access to their digital footprint (and for how long). This helps them better appreciate the impression they are making online. It’s important for leaders [like educators, administrators, Human Resources, corporations/institutions involved with recruitment and hiring] to also educate youth & current employees about what is being sought online as a valid professional profile, and how that may be used in a hiring or employment scenario.”

NerdScholar turned to academic experts in information technology, online security, and career experts to learn how young people could better manage their online images and protect their privacy. We learned three main pieces of advice:

Regulate what you share with and with whom on social media sites

Positively shape your online image for the sake of your career

Know how to take care of your online info when using email and online banking platforms

Regulate what you share and with whom on social media

It is no surprise that generation-y has been pigeonholed as the generation to live online. Young people post updates about what they are doing and where they are to Facebook, Twitter, Google +, and other social media sites. The simple fact is that when people share this sort of information, you are giving the web many data points about you in addition to sharing your life with others. Thus, regulating what content you share is crucial to protecting your privacy.

Michael Wentz, Director of Digital Communications at Adelphi University recommended students to “limit the amount of personal information [they] share publicly.  Be sure to increase your privacy settings on all of your personal information and social media networks.” Make sure that you set your social media site’s privacy settings to your comfort level and make sure that you also know who can see your personal information.

Wentz also recommends “…living by the Golden Rule–to treat others as they would like to be treated.  But, most importantly, think before you click the “send” button.  Information sent into the digital world cannot be taken back and is easily retrieved by skilled professionals.  Your online actions can positively or negatively impact your life, now and in the future.”

Nicole Williams, LinkedIn expert, put it this way, “When it comes to your private information you should keep that guarded. Never post your address or personal phone number on social media. Also, it might be wise to leave off your birth year as this is an identifier for hackers.” Clearly, it is highly important for both one’s safety and online image to be aware of what is shared on social media.

Siobhan MacDermott, Chief Policy Officer at AVG Technologies and author of Wide Open Privacy—Strategies for the Digital Life, described the false sense of security in the social media community by saying, “People are guilty of over sharing.  We see this a lot with students especially who are checking in on things like Foursquare and Facebook without thinking through the implications of what they are doing.  Checking in somewhere is the equivalent of saying “Hey, I’m not at home, go and rob my house.” Students’ security can be at risk so knowing how their online information can be used against them is always a good thing to think about before hitting the share button.

Positively shape your online image for the sake of your career

A very important reason to be proactive about protecting your digital footprint is that potential employers will use the web to research you and ultimately decide whether they want to hire you. Many experts have a general rule that you should not share anything that you would not like to see on the front page of the New York Times. Although this tip might seem extreme, it is worth noting because many have suffered severe consequences for sharing inappropriate information.

As Michael Wentz told us, “Risky online behavior can be linked to severe consequences.  Public officials have been forced out of office, employees have lost their jobs, students have been kicked off of sports teams, and some may have been expelled from school due to postings online. “ If you are not careful something you post online can complicate your future career prospects. It is recommended for young people to create a professional online identity sharing only information you would not mind a future employer seeing. Sites like LinkedIn are good for this but you should also be aware that social media sites are a gateway to your life and a reflection of your character.

Know how to take care of your online info when using email and online banking platforms

Besides sharing our everyday lives through social media, we also use email and banking platforms to communicate and conduct routine money transactions. Although many banks and email services take good measures to protect users, knowing to what extent you are vulnerable to people accessing your data can help you down the line.

Fabio Assolini, Senior Security Researcher at Kapersky Labs suggests that, “To do…secure online banking there are some simple good practices to ensure your security: keep your Windows always updated, keep the plugins of your browser updated (Flash Player, PDF reader, Java), keep a close eye in the webpage, checking for the SSL connection (the yellow padlock in the screen), [and] always check your balance.” You should be aware of how safe the computer on which you are conducting your transactions really is because hackers can exploit any weaknesses in your networks’ vulnerability.

There are other measures, like using out of band authentication and keystroke encryption, that can protect you. George Waller, Founder of StrikeForce Technologies, a company focused on security technology, warned us that your money is not fully protected when you bank online. “If your money is stolen out of your bank due to spyware on your computer, the bank is not responsible to refund your money…Most people don’t actually know that when you sign up for online banking that you are 100% responsible of keeping credential stealing spyware (keyloggers) off your computer.” Waller describes how it is important to be aware of how to protect yourself when banking online and to learn about new ways you can protect yourself.

In addition to your money being in danger you are also at risk of identity theft. Experts suggest changing your email, banking, and other platforms’ passwords often. Dr. Janet Corral tells students to, “Be smart when you go online – don’t give away information that is not necessary; don’t spread your own data around without good reason – be confident you need the services you are signing up for [and] change your passwords often.” The same goes for other material you receive via email because a hefty amount of information is stored in your email.

Chuck Davis, who teaches Ethical Hacking and Computer Forensics at Harrisburg University, suggests that students always use “https” encryption and have two-factor authentication. Also, remember that just because you are using “https” to encrypt your data that does not mean that it will remain encrypted as it moves through the internet. He gave us this example, “…If you connect to gmail using https, you are sending the email from your computer to the Google mail servers in an encrypted tunnel. But if you are sending that email to another mail server, for example,, that email will be sent over the Internet in clear text with no more security than a postcard. This is where the NSA or any other entity with logical access to the Internet infrastructure can intercept and read content.” Knowing how to safely browse the Internet can help you protect your privacy and regulate the information that you want to share.

Moreover, we have seen more projects about how to grow more aware of the utility of the data we produce each day while using the web. Experts Peter Snyder and Chris Kanich at the University of Illinois at Chicago have launched a research project called “Cloudsweeper” meant to help users understand their risks online. For example, you can run an “account theft audit” of your email, which can even give you a dollar amount of how much the data in your email is worth.

In a recent NPR interview, Dr. Kanich explained how Cloudsweeper can “tally up and give you a really rough, hypothetical guess about how much [money] a cyber criminal could actually make by taking over your account and then selling everything that’s inside of it.” Tools like this can give you an idea of how your online exposure can affect you in the event that your email account gets hacked.

Additionally, at MIT’s Media Lab, Daniel Smilkov, Deepak Jagdish, and Cesar Hidalgo have launched “Immersion,” a tool to dive into the history of your email life so you can delete undesirable history usually hidden in metadata. You can also reflect on the people with whom you share your data by looking at a visual representation of the connections you have. This tool can also be used to give you a better sense of what you have in your inbox and allows you to delete data, making sure you have complete ownership. All in all, there are many ways you can protect your online privacy but the main goal should be for you to be aware of how your data is shared and with whom.