May 12, 2014

Be Careful of Your Online “Paper” Trail

Businesswoman leaving paper trailI read a few stories about popular app, Snapchat, and how the company’s practices has left it in a not-so-popular scenario.

According to a story on CNN Money, the company recently settled charges with the Federal Trade Commission due to its deception of customers “on several levels.”

Here’s some background:

Snapchat is photo messaging app that allows users to “privately” send photos, videos and texts to others—i.e. “Snaps.”

The sender allocates how long his or her message can be viewed (1-10 seconds according to Wikipedia) and once the time is up, the messages “disappear.” The objective is to be able to send quick information to who you want, and for that information to quickly be deleted thereafter.

It’s a means to communicate information without a trace of the communication.

Except, as the CNN Money article explains, Snapchat didn’t stick to its promises.

The company also had said it took appropriate security measures to keep the information safe. However, “disappearing” videos don’t actually vanish. They were stored, unencrypted, on phones. That meant anyone could just plug a device into a computer and play the files.

So, although this app is promoted with the purpose of people being able to securely and privately send information, the truth is that the messages sent via Snapchat can be accessed even upon “deletion.”

Snapchat was also quietly collecting information about its customers. The company promised it wouldn’t track users, but it surreptitiously followed an Android phone’s every move. It also uploaded entire contact lists from iPhones without letting a customer know.

Yikes. Talk about a blatant invasion of privacy.

That blew up in the company’s face when hackers stole the contact information for 4.6 million Snapchat users and posted their usernames and partial phone numbers online.

This entire issue is yet another example of why it’s so important to be cautious of your online activity. A recent New York Times article on the Snapchat settlement explained it well. It said:

The settlement is the latest revelation that much of what is shared over the web and through mobile devices is at risk for interception or eventual retrieval, even if the hardware and software companies that transmit them promise otherwise. Security vulnerabilities have been exposed at major banks, corporations and retailers around the globe and at many start-ups.

I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll stress it again: There is nothing private when it comes to the internet.

Many people are concerned with leaving paper trails and make sure to cover their tracks (in both positive and negative scenarios), but why aren’t we just as careful when it comes to leaving an online and/or technology trail?

I opened my Yahoo email account in 2008, and to this day, I still have every email I ever sent and received. Of course, I’ve deleted many, but who can for sure say that Yahoo has forever wiped them off of its servers? And this is also true for work email accounts; an employee may have deleted a harsh message trash talking his or her employer, but the person cannot be certain the email will never surface again.

The same holds true for chats/instant messaging, texts, Facebook posts and statuses, tweets…the list can go on and on. If it’s technological in medium and transmitted online, it’s out there. And as evident by the increase of hacker activity, it doesn’t take too much for someone to find the information.

So, what are we to do?

As with all things in life, bad accompanies good. There are great uses for technology and the internet, but people can also misuse them to cause harm. To protect yourself, think first before using these mediums. Really evaluate: Can this email I am about to send come back to haunt me? Is this photo a good representation of me or my employer? Does this tweet accurately portray my views?

Life happens, and unfortunately, it’s not always positive. Sure it would be great if the companies behind the social media platforms and apps would stick to their promises when it comes to securing our online activities, but again, life happens. If we are more cautious about the information we choose to share—acting as our own gatekeepers—we won’t get tripped up when instances like this occur.

Your online reputation is important, so why leave it in the hands of others?

Read more in Social Network

Marks’ stories have also been published in a variety of newspaper, magazine and online formats including The Arizona Republic, The Daily Herald, Arizona Foothills Magazine and various classroom magazines of Scholastic Inc. Service is her passion, writing is her platform and uplifting and inspiring the community is her purpose. Marks received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University.
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