Online privacy continues to be an important topic and one that, as web and mobile app developers, we consider critical for people of all ages to consciously monitor. We have talked about this topic before, first examining Personal Privacy in the Digital Age, and then providing advice on how both consumers and companies can protect their personal information.
In a recent team discussion, our thoughts turned to online privacy for kids. We were excited to learn that some of our team had elementary age kids who were actually delving into this topic in their classrooms. We discovered their lessons not only interesting, but relevant to adults as well. So, in a unique twist on “guest blogging” we are going to share some online privacy advice from kids for both kids and adults.
Their top advice for ensuring online privacy:
- Decide what you consider OK to share
- Be selective where you choose to share that information
- Use a password algorithm any time you provide private details
- Pay for a VPN if you are using public WiFi
Online Privacy Basics: Decide What You Consider OK to Share
The very first tech assignment our fifth graders completed is where you should start too! They created a chart detailing what information they would be OK with people knowing about them and what they would absolutely not want anyone to know. They had to decide if it would be acceptable for people such as their parents, teachers, friends, or a stranger to know things like their favorite songs, most embarrassing moments, home address, and other details.
After deciding on their boundaries, the students searched for themselves online to determine if the standards they stated had been compromised anywhere online. Students were surprised to find that strangers could discover information about them that they had stated they would never want a stranger to know. Sometimes it was information that friends had posted about them. The lessons the fifth graders learned from this exercise are relevant to adults too:
- What you post can last a lifetime. Any information shared online can be copied and is almost impossible to take back.
- Only post about others what you would want them to post about you (aka the Golden Rule).
- Pay attention to your online presence and the websites and apps you use.
- Stay current with available technology and methods to manage online privacy.
Be Selective About Where You Share Personal Information
Our 5th graders learned their next lesson when asked to create an account for an online audio distribution platform and music sharing website. During the account creation process, the students were instructed to keep track of the information the site requested. The assignment stopped before they actually submitted their information, but students were surprised to learn the personal information they were required to provide just to listen to music online.
Their advice to you as a result? When signing up for new services, consider using an email address that’s not your primary address. If the service asks for information like your address, birthdate, or other personal details, decide whether or not that site really needs those details in order to provide the service you desire. If not, consider using fake information. Value and protect your personal information like you would protect your money. Be selective with information you provide to apps and websites.
The students also learned that in 2019, YouTube paid $170 million to settle allegations that it collected personal information from children without parental consent. YouTube allegedly tracked users of channels directed towards kids and then earned millions by using this information to target ads to children – all without a parent’s consent.
Sites like YouTube and many others regularly collect information from adults as well, as outlined in those privacy policies you have perhaps never read?! Remembering that sites leverage the information you provide can make you a smarter consumer.
Use a Password Algorithm to Protect Your Personal Information
You likely already know the importance of strong passwords. You may not know this great tip our fifth-graders learned from their teachers: develop a password algorithm of your own to create and remember passwords. An algorithm is a formula to use for any password you create. A simple fifth-grade example is:
- the first digit of the password is the number of characters in the site name
- the second digit is “o” if the number in the first letter was odd and “e” if it was even
- the third digit is the last letter of the name of the site
- the fourth digit is “&” if the letter in the previous step was a vowel and “%” if it was a consonant
- the last three digits are the first three letters of the name of the site
So a password for Facebook in this example would be 8ek&fac. The key here is to remember the algorithm, don’t share it with anyone, and don’t make it too complicated. Using a password manager is also highly recommended, but may not be practical for your kids to implement in a school setting since many times kids are using shared computer resources.
If you think your crafty phrases are good enough, you might also enjoy this site that tells you how quickly a computer could crack your password.
Online Privacy Tip: If You use Public WiFi, pay for a VPN
Many public locations offer WiFi for free, so many students believed it would be harmless to use. Unfortunately, as the kids learned, public WiFi can be more easily hacked. As a result, they advise you to stick with well-known networks, such as those at popular coffee shops or chain cafes. These networks are more secure because they are operated by companies who want customers for their main business – coffee and food – not only for the free WiFi. Steer clear of any free WiFi option that pops up in a mall or from a network operated by an unrecognizable third party.
For absolute security over public WiFi, older students and adults can invest in a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN allows you to browse the internet safely and anonymously without leaving a trace. You can find more guidance on how different VPNs differ from one another by reading this VPN comparison. It turns any public network into a private connection and encrypts everything done online. Reliable VPN services will cost a few dollars per month and many options are available. While the extra expense may be a turnoff for some, others compare that cost to the more substantial cost of having your identity or data stolen.
Concluding Thoughts on Online Privacy
We can’t state enough how important it is for you to be mindful of where you are sharing personal information. We encourage you to limit what you choose to disclose, and to take precautions to protect that disclosure by using solid passwords and secure networks.
If you are in a business situation where you are collecting information from users, apply the same standards to yourself and collect only what you need. Protecting personal information is one of the many competencies we have, so please feel free to reach out if you need help for a custom software or app development project.