I’ve rarely read a book that chilled and scared me the way writer Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy did. In this must-read for anyone who uses their laptop or phone to go online, Blue details the numerous ways women and LGBT people especially face security risks every time we go online, including identity theft, revenge porn, stalking, and all manner of scams.
But it was the little ways our personal data can be compromised that most haunted me, everything from using mobile apps and online dating sites to throwing out an old phone to simply using your computer in public. Blue, who’s covered technology for CBS News and CNET, breaks down the big and little ways our data can get out there. Whether it’s someone with malicious intentions cracking our passwords, as happened to Wired reporter Mat Honan, or a company’s privacy breach or the recent Heartbleed bug, you need to pay attention.
What was most eye-opening was discovering just how vulnerable I am, especially when logging in via a public network, which I do often when I travel or work at cafés. What a wakeup call when I realized how much information about myself was public on people-finder sites—including my home address. I consider myself moderately tech savvy, but almost immediately I had to put the book down and start implementing her advice, from changing my browser privacy settings to putting a password on my iPhone. I emailed Blue to find out what we women can do to protect ourselves.
First, we have to know what the potential problems and dangers are. “As women, we're targeted just by showing up,” explained Blue. “Every time we go on Facebook or leave a comment with a female name attached to it, we're checked out for sex, judged accordingly, and the non-targets act on their judgment. Many young women aren’t even aware that they bear target status. This means that social media sites, apps, and all their privacy settings have a baseline of ‘normal’ that doesn't take into consideration that half of the users are dealing with being targeted, and all the ugly experiences that can come with it.”
Earlier this year, in her Pacific Standard article “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” Amanda Hess detailed the abysmal law-enforcement response to threats made against women: “The first time I reported an online rape threat to police, in 2009, the officer dispatched to my home asked, ‘Why would anyone bother to do something like that?’ and declined to file a report.” Blue knows firsthand the damage stalkers can do; she had to file a restraining order against two who teamed up to expose her information and repeatedly harass her online. Though you may not have success, documenting incidents of harassment is vital so you have a record in case they escalate. “With the two stalkers I made reports on, I had printed file folders so I could show the officers what was happening online. They could see it and they understood that this was indeed stalking, harassment, and abuse. I showed them threats about my car, and the incidents of vandalization.” Blue recommends this cyberstalking guide.
Part of my job involves being active on social media, and for many others I know, social media is part and parcel of our personal and professional lives. I asked Blue how to balance this truth with protecting sensitive information. Blue advises keeping track of what information is most vital to you. “Answer these questions: What do I want to keep private? (RED list) What is part of my sharing life? (GREEN list) What is already public? (YELLOW list). Something you want to put on the RED list would be your home address.” It’s up to you to make sure that information stays private, which means not only shouldn’t you share your address, you shouldn’t let others share it, whether by checking in on Foursquare at your home, keeping geolocation turned off of photos taken there, etc.
She also recommends you “make the internet wear a condom.” What does this mean? Not letting your browsing information, web searches, or reading habits go beyond your own computer. She cites the example of the man who found out his daughter was pregnant via a mailing from Target trying to sell her baby product. As Blue puts it in the book, “When I go to Jezebel as a user, I might think that only Jezebel is collecting my data. What I don’t realize is that for every ad on that page, a company is also attaching a piece of code to me, and collecting my data.” Let that give you pause as you read the news.
I recently visited a blog that asked for my email address before entering. Before reading Blue’s book, I would have freely given it. After all, I’m already on umpteen mailing lists; what’s one more? But Blue says that’s the wrong way of looking at it. “Think about it. If you can't immediately answer the question ‘who am I giving my email address to’ or the answer is ‘I don't know’ or ‘some dude’—forget it. If any site asks for your email address, real name, contact info or anything of the like—don't give it your real information, ever. They already have your IP address, browser and computer info, date and time of visit, duration of visit and what you clicked on. Make an email address just for that site, make a throwaway email address, or use a browser plugin like Get Cocoon that will make masked email addresses.”
During the course of reading the book, I took several steps to lock down my information, but found that I started to panic that the cat was already out of the bag. Blue advises that baby steps are still important. “It's impossible to do everything in the world. But if you single out a few things to concentrate on you'll be 100 percent safer than you were before, and 75 percent safer than most everyone else.” Get started now. Blue’s top-three fast safety tips are: Do a social media check-up by reviewing all of your privacy settings, then sign out and view your profiles as someone else to make sure what you want kept private truly is. Put a Post-it over your computer's webcam. And install and use a good password program like 1Password or LastPass.
Even Blue has learned over the years. “I won't even sit in front of my sweetie's laptops unless I spot his taped-over camera. I password protect everything, and never let my electronics out of my hands. I also change my passwords practically like day-to-night lipstick, whereas before I was a lazy bum and used to ‘recycle’ them.” Blue’s blog has more security tips to help familiarize you with what you need to know.