As we all know, the power of technology has created convenience and connectivity never known before. Used for good, technology is an awesome and beautiful thing. Used carelessly or for malicious purposes, technology is a terrible beast that cannot be tamed. To keep technology working for your own benefit, you must accept that everything you put into the world-wide web—every comment you make on social media, every photo you post, every review you offer, really, just about anything you do online—is permanent. That’s right, nothing, and I mean nothing, is private.
So, repeat after me, ‘The Internet is FOREVER.’ I want you to remember these four words each time you engage on social media, email or anywhere on the Internet. Let these words guide all your online actions. If you must, tape this message onto your phone and on every computer in the house. I’m serious. Why? Because this reminder can save you from embarrassment, conflict and a whole lot worse. Let me show you how…
CONTEXT — One of the biggest tensions within online communications is that the meanings and implications of what you say online is very different from what can be more fully understood in a real conversation. A face-to-face dialogue offers clues where we can infer how we are being understood or get greater insight into what someone else is saying. Multi-dimensional signals, from visual cues like facial expressions or body language, to auditory cues like tone and level of voice, provide real-time clues that inform how we should behave and respond. By comparison, our conversations online are one-dimensional. You cannot reliably infer context in the digital world. This means that what you say in anger or annoyance or how you react to provocation can be easily misunderstood.
MAGNIFICATION — Online communications are amplified. They are easily seen by lots of people who don’t have any perspective as to who you are personally or as to what made you upset. No doubt, the trail of what you say and do online can and will leave strong impression about you—but perhaps not the one you intended.
FACEBOOK — Pretty much every person on the planet Earth, OK, getting more specific, about 1.86 billion Facebook users, can see every comment you make, what you like and link to and your personal photos if you don’t have any privacy settings on Facebook. But even if you are on top of privacy settings, shares and screen shots can magnify what you say and do beyond your intended audience. Plus, if you have been generous in how you define a Facebook friend, you may not know every friend’s political point of view, affiliation, relations or workplace. You cannot predict how they will interpret what you say or what they will do with that information. Take heed, what you say on Facebook can have unintended and lasting consequences.
TEXT MESSAGES — Even if you delete a text conversation, it’s entirely traceable. Stored by your phone provider, police and legal proceedings can easily unearth every text you have ever sent.
EMAIL — If you have ever sent an email in anger or frustration and then, faced with regret, deleted it, you have done nothing to end the cycle of online communications. Simply put, once an email is unleashed with the unmitigated power of the send button, it is permanently etched into the everlasting memory of the digital world. The person who received the email, the people they forwarded it to, office servers that make nightly automatic back-ups, and yes, here too, police and subpoena procedures can access every email you have ever sent.
In the digital world, your words can be taken out of context. Your anger can become a defining characteristic; your actions can implicate you; and your digital reputation can shape the opportunities you gain access to. Our illusion of privacy, that private account settings and access controls will protect us, is misinformed. The reality is that anyone within our social or professional circles can take a screenshot of a private post to share as a digital image file or make a copy of a confidential document.
Be good out there, the Internet is listening.
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About Ben Halpert: By day, Ben Halpert is the VP of Risk and Corporate Security at Ionic Security, Inc. By night, he champions cyber ethics education throughout society via the 501(c)3 nonprofit Savvy Cyber Kids he founded in 2007 … Learn more.