You may have seen recent reports about the increase in identity theft and problems related to Internet safety. A lot of the blame has been placed on the increase in use of mobile technologies, such as phones and tablet computers. In a 2011 study, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 83% of adults in the United States owned a cell phone of some type. A more recent report from Pew found that tablet ownership almost doubled between December 2011 and January 2012.
As an online student you may be using a mobile device, in addition to a home computer or laptop, to access your courses. And the convenience of online learning may mean you are accessing your courses from a variety of locations, leaving you and your devices vulnerable to theft or hacking through public Internet connections. The good news is that there are steps you can take to protect your identity, your personal information, and your equipment.
- Lock your devices. As we become more dependent on mobile technology to assist us not only with access to our course materials and email, but also with location services, personal calendars, and financial transactions, consider the amount and type of information stored on your devices. If your phone was lost or stolen, what would be at risk? Most devices have a feature that allows you to set a password to access the keypad or screen. Lookout Mobile Security provides the steps for setting up passcodes and lock-screen security on both Android phones and iPhones to protect your private information.
- Create better passwords. It's tempting to create passwords that include familiar names and phrases, and to use the same password for multiple accounts, but these practices can leave you and your information at risk. Wolfram.org and McAfee list techniques for creating safer passwords, including tips to make them as long as possible; use a mix of numbers, upper and lower case letters, and special characters; and avoid words easily associated with you or part of an account number. If you find your current passwords on this list of the "25 Words Passwords of 2011" it is time to make some changes.
- Share selectively. You are likely required to share a certain amount of personal information in your online class, and you may choose to share even more through social networking accounts such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. It can be helpful to provide some details to classmates and instructors as you get to know each other and build a learning community online. But you can be selective in what you share. Is there a reason for example to post your home address or home phone number? Probably not. You may have an occasion to share this information with students you are working with on a group project, for instance, but otherwise if it's not absolutely required, don't post it.
- Check your settings. With most social networking systems you have options related to privacy, concerning who can and cannot access your profile. View the options for each of your accounts and update your settings as needed. Don't assume that the default settings are the most private. Note that these settings can and do change, so it is necessary to routinely check for updates. Google is one of the latest systems to revise its policies, and while they have given ample notice to users in advance of the coming changes, not all platforms are this transparent. Review your active profiles and ensure that the privacy levels you have intended are the ones currently applied to your accounts.
- Be careful when using unsecure wireless connections. Accessing public wi-fi connections is ultra convenient, especially when we are working or studying while traveling or taking a break in a coffee shop. Unfortunately, these hotspots are also popular with hackers. FraudAvengers.org recommends we "avoid making financial transactions" through these connections. Additional safety measures for public locations include using security software, keeping Bluetooth switched off while not in use, and keeping your software and browsers up-to-date at all times.
- Develop good habits. Don't leave your devices unattended and be vigilant with your personal information and how you choose to share it. Add Internet safety steps to your calendar, such as routinely changing your passwords and reviewing your privacy settings. Putting all of the steps outlined above into practice will take time and effort on your part, but can prevent much more costly problems from happening down the road.
Common Sense Media advises that "there's no such thing as 'private' online." While there are a lot of steps you can take to protect your privacy, if you are actively online it may be helpful to assume that there is potential for all of your posted information to be accessed at some point.
Choose your online activities carefully, especially the information you share about yourself, and keep your devices secure when you are in public locations. Help us add to this our list – what Internet safety advice would you give to your classmates?
Image credit: philcampbell, Flickr CC-BY