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Staying safe in a digitized world

IN OUR GADGET-OBSESSED society, the daily use of technology has become second nature. Seeing people listening to music, texting, or updating their Facebook status while walking down the street is commonplace. The benefits of living in a technologically advanced world are abundant, but there are also dangers associated with everyone’s favourite electronic favourite electronic toys and social networking sites. The Fulcrum sat down with students, professors, the polivce, and a self-defence instructor staying safe while plugged in.

Social networking danger

Since its creation, Facebook has amassed over 500 million active users, many of whom frequently post their personal information on their profiles. Seemingly nothing is off limits as users update their Facebook pages to include their current location, class schedules, phone numbers, and places of work.

Although posting this information to Facebook may seem like a fun and harmless way to connect with friends, how can anyone be sure their personal details don’t fall into the wrong hands?

In Wales in 2009, Brian Lewis allegedly strangled his partner to death after she changed her relationship status to single on Facebook. Craig Allen Bailey, a Michigan man, was recently arrested for sending obscene photos to minors via text, which he did after finding their cellphone numbers through Facebook.

In recent years, there have been multiple reported instances of online victimization. Social networking sites have been held partially responsible for many different scams, stalking and harassment, and murder, yet many social media networkers continue to post personal information online.

Marc Soucy, an Ottawa police officer assigned to the media relations office, explains the phenomenon of online harassment.

“Threats online, through different mediums like Facebook, Twitter, or just general email, are one of the most common problems we get in schools,” he said. “How many [people] have more than 100 friends [on Facebook, Twitter, etc]? It’s impossible to know all 200 people very well, so the best way to protect yourself is to be careful as to who you speak to and who you befriend on those social networking mediums.”

The gender game

The Ottawa Police Service website warns women in particular experience a high degree of harassment online, and encourages citizens to “consider changing [their username] to a gender-neutral name or even a male-type name.”

Michael Strangelove, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa, also believes women experience more harassment online than men.

“Phone numbers are very dumb [to post online], particularly for young women or women of any age,” he said. “There’s huge numbers of people that are trolling Facebook just looking for personal information so they can run all sorts of scams on you. This combination of information: This is where I live and [I’m] going to my friend’s this weekend—now I know you’re not in your house.”

Interviews with male and female students showed a person’s gender affects how they present themselves online.

“I am definitely concerned with posting personal information on social networking sites,” admitted Diana Snow, a fourth-year health sciences student at the University of Ottawa. “I think protecting my personal information and my identity are very important because you never know who can see what on the Internet. Once something is posted … it can never be fully deleted, which is definitely a scary thing for me.”

Male student Robert Brodie, a third-year communications student at the U of O, explains he is far less cautious with his online presence.

“I admittedly don’t take that many precautions,” he said. “I do generally stay to purchasing from well-known websites … and I sign in through Facebook whenever I can to avoid creating [multiple online] accounts, but I really don’t hide anything—I always give out my real name.”


The privacy illusion

Many Facebook users think monitoring privacy settings and restricting access to their profiles means their information is safe.

“On Twitter, I protect my tweets, meaning that no one can view my tweets unless they follow me, which they have to request to do,” explained Snow. “I have the choice of allowing or denying them access.”

Strangelove has a different perspective on online privacy. He does not believe it is possible to keep anything private after it has been posted on Facebook or any other social networking site.

“The perception of privacy is a false perception,” he said. “[Mark] Zuckerberg’s idea is radical transparency. He’s not radically transparent, the corporation isn’t radically transparent, but he’s asking the consumer to be radically transparent so they can create these massive databases that they can sell to advertisers and allow governments to access.”

Strangelove urged students to accept what he believes to be the cold, hard truth about the Internet.

“If it’s online, you have to realize that corporations have it, governments have access to it, and criminals will get access to it if they want to,” he said. “Accept that and don’t put anything online that’s economically or personally sensitive … Fundamentally, if you want to keep it secret, don’t say it.”

In our Internet-dependent society, past mistakes can easily become a thing of the future, regardless of whether a person tries to make the information private. As displayed on the Ottawa Police Service’s Crime Prevention website, “Much of what you do, say, or post on the web is out there for everyone to see. Much of it is recorded in a database somewhere and can be used by both scrupulous and unscrupulous individuals.”

According to Strangelove, posting potentially compromising photos and information—even “privately”—is exactly how people wind up in personal and professional trouble.

“Corporations are extremely sensitive to how people present themselves on Facebook,” he explained. “It can be just one picture, but if the wrong company, wrong human resources department, see[s] you with that bottle of beer—a perfectly legitimate activity—it can be exceedingly hurtful.”

Students should remember anything they post online could come back to haunt them.

“[Posting personal photos] can really destroy your future career possibilities,” said Strangelove. “Chances are it’s not going to hurt you, but if it does there’s no second chance.”


Heading home 

Over-sharing on the Internet isn’t the only way technology can come back to bite us. Using personal devices or cellphones while walking home can also be potentially harmful.

Julie Stark, a Krav Maga self-defence instructor in Waterloo, Ont., emphasizes talking on cellphones or listening to iPods can leave students open to attack because they aren’t paying attention to their surroundings.

“Texting [can be dangerous],” said Stark. “People around here have even been seen walking into parked cars while texting.”

According to Holly Johnson, criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, many of the safety tips commonly offered to women—like walking home with a friend or avoiding secluded areas—are inadequate.

“If you’re distracted in some way or if you don’t look confident—all of these [observations] are true,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been telling women forever. My objection to that is we are once again putting the onus on women to prevent their own victimization as opposed to focusing on [the assailants].”

Johnson noted almost 500,000 women a year in Canada are sexually assaulted, and only about 10 per cent of these cases are ever reported.

“Women are trying to manage their safety from men who harass them on the street on a pretty regular basis,” she said. “My reaction to the training about cellphones and iPods is yeah, that’s obvious. You shouldn’t be wearing loud music on your head as you’re crossing the street. You might miss a bus coming, you know? It’s common sense … The fact of the matter is that men prey on vulnerable women and that increases your vulnerability.”

When asked if talking on a cellphone while walking alone deters an attack, Soucy explained he feels it is unlikely to make any difference in cases where the victim knows the assailant.

“If it’s someone who knows you who is going to assault you, then [cellphone usage] has no effect,” he explained. “But if it’s a complete stranger and it’s a random attack, these people don’t want witnesses, and if you’re on the phone, you have a potential witness.”

Many students perceive cellphone use to be an adequate safety measure while walking at night.

“I find that using technology makes me feel more safe, because I am unaware of my surroundings,” Snow said. “Ironically, texting and listening to music leave me distracted and probably looking like an easy target.”


Final words

Anyone posting personal information online or walking home alone should take the necessary precautions. Use services like Foot Patrol or the buddy system, and contact the police if you experience any threatening or violent behaviour on or offline.

Technology has become an integral part of our everyday lives, and is certainly advantageous to society; however, the dangers of technology arise when users are not cautious.

“[Technology use is] becoming second nature to the whole generation,” said Strangelove. “The vast majority will not be hurt by these practices, but some will and some will be hurt very badly. So, you’re rolling the dice.”

—Written by Kiera Obbard, with files from Kristyn Filip
If you or someone you know is a victim of a crime, you can contact the Ottawa Police directly or call one of their specialized sections for help: Partner Assault Unit (613) 236-1222, ext. 5407 or the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit (613) 236-1222, ext. 5944. The Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre can be reached by their 24-hour crisis line at (613) 562-2333. Reach Foot Patrol during the day by calling (613) 562-5800 ext. 4517 and at night using the ext. 7433.