Does privacy still exist?

In a digital age when many share every detail of their lives and cyber-security breaches are more and more common, we ask computer experts and business professionals what’s the future for our data.

The world is available at our fingertips with the punch of a few keys, or maybe that’s just how the World Wide Web is intended to feel.

With access to a variety of online shopping sites, social media accounts and blogging forums, today’s society has the virtual ability to accomplish anything in a day. Although this milestone in technology is praised and practiced by many, the question left to answer is when is it too much?

Recently, several major companies in the U.S. have been victims of online hacking. The credit and debit card information of 40 million customers of Target was stolen during the December 2013 data breach. Then in August 2014, the personal data for 4.5 million patients at Community Health Services was compromised.

But perhaps one of the most talked about hacks happened to Sony Pictures Entertainment in November 2014, in which the emails between employees, information about executive salaries at the company and copies of unreleased Sony films were stolen. The hackers, who called themselves the “Guardians of Peace” or “GOP,” also demanded the cancellation of the planned release of the film “The Interview.”

Jeff Kinne

Jeff Kinne

“The Internet is fundamentally designed to be open and anonymous, so when I send information from myself to (a website like) Amazon, there’s no guarantee about what other computers that it may pass through,” said Jeff Kinne, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at Indiana State University. “I have to assume that it could go anywhere, including adversaries or people that will use the data inappropriately.”

Attempting to answers a few questions about safe online practices for corporations and companies to partake, Kinne made several suggestions.

“For some of the data breaches, companies were storing passwords and other sensitive information in a plain text document; this is a major problem because if anybody gains access to that system, they have all the data without any additional work,” he said.

One best practice for companies to follow is using what is to store passwords and sensitive information in a more secure form. One method is to store data in encrypted files. For storing passwords, a slightly different technique should be used, called a hash of an individual’s password.

“Then if somebody breaks into their computer, they’ll have the hash of your password, which doesn’t actually allow them to use it,” he said.

There are many other best practices that companies should follow, which greatly reduce the chances of being hacked.

One key to computer security is to ensure employees and others are knowledgeable about keeping their own systems safe. For example, users should check for a small icon of a lock on your web address box. The symbol indicates that the information you send out will be encrypted, or scrambled, along the way. Users should also avoid using the same password for all of their online accounts.

“If you’re not sure about a company, use a different password that you don’t normally use. If you don’t want to remember dozens of different passwords you could at least have three levels of passwords,” Kinne said. “One would be for your banks and the like; a second level would be for other often-used sites; a third level would be for sites that do not actually store any sensitive data (e.g., Pandora).”

Although taking precautions is advised, it doesn’t always guarantee safety.

“Many breaches result from a person clicking on an email and downloading an attachment that was a virus,” Kinne said. “The Sony hack (happened because) they weren’t practicing many of these practices. So it is very important to keep your employees informed about what they’re supposed to do.”

Although technology engineers constantly create more secure and protected steps for publically divulging such information, it seems the risk will always be there.

“There’s always a battle between the hackers and the security people,” Kinne said. “It’s just who is ahead, and it seems that the hackers are ahead currently.”

With the controversy surrounding the idea of our privacy being breached, where does that leave privacy for the information we choose to give away?

Tom Steiger

Tom Steiger

Today’s youth have grown up with social media sites, and the number of these outlets has grown exponentially in that time. This leaves sociologists, like Indiana State’s Tom Steiger, left to assess that “sharing” is just what younger generations are familiar and comfortable with.

“Isn’t that what ‘friends’ do? Keep each other updated on what’s going on,” he said. “Privacy doesn’t mean it’s just for me, privacy means it’s for me and whoever I deem to share with, and having some illusion of control of that is probably pretty important.”

The idea of creating an online community gives many the notion of sharing a piece of themselves with others that doesn’t require the same face-to-face effort.

Avid social media enthusiasts, such as 2013 communication graduate Brooke Wardle, say they believe sharing is important to how they sell themselves to others either as a brand or a person.

For Wardle, social media has presented an opportunity to promote her employer, Judson University, and in turn plays a role in higher registration numbers and activity involvement.

“We are creating our brand and using social media to grow our audience,” she said. “We use social media to promote our events and drive traffic to our website and Facebook page.”

Social media is also what keeps her connected and able to monitor her audience not only in a professional setting, but also personally.

“I love posting, because I use social media to keep up with my friends, family and co-workers,” she said. “It’s a way to express myself and feel like I have support while doing so …. I try and post two to three (times) a day, unless it is a big emotion like someone passing away, losing a lot of money or (getting) a new job.”

Wardle’s social media use is an example of how big a role it can play intertwining our lives and relationships with whomever we’d like to stay connected. This prevalence, however, can sometimes blur the line of the kind of information or feedback we should sometimes keep to ourselves.

“I do not post about emotions or how I feel,” Wardle said. “I believe that Facebook is not an open diary.”

While many agree, others may behave differently using social media as a mechanism for expression.

Experts such as Indiana State Career Services Coordinator Kyle Moore say Wardle may be on the right track with her emotional firewall. Informality and lack of privacy on young people’s social media presence can jeopardize employment chances, he said.

“There’s expectations of things (people) shouldn’t have (on their social media sites), like there a lot of red flags,” Moore said. “Your Spring Break pictures may be great, but sometimes might not be appropriate, (especially) going into (a field like) education, law enforcement or anything where your image is going to be scrutinized …. They estimate that about 50 percent of candidates are screened out because of social media content, and that’s a huge number. That’s a scary number.”

Many users are often under the impression that what is shared on personal sites or iPhone apps is inaccessible to unwanted viewers, but a closer look at the fine print will tell you what kind of information you’re giving up.

“People don’t realize that they leave a trail of stuff that they’re posting,” Moore said. “Some people just put so much out there, and stuff that they think is private is not. (For example), every time I update an app, it asks you for these additional permissions and people just click through that stuff and give them permission to look through your contacts and make purchases that an app has no business accessing.”

With a more watchful eye and perhaps a more guarded media presence, we have the ability to maintain a semblance of the privacy we assume is there all along. With a little more reluctance, our identity can feel more protected, after all, as Moore said, “(Social media sites are) actually doing nothing wrong. They’re taking the stuff, because you gave it to them,” he said.

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