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Simple Protection in the Information Age

Recently an episode of an investigative television show highlighted a case about a Florida woman who had been kidnapped and a ransom placed on her head. Through the many twists and turns of the story, eventually the clue that would break the case wide open found its way into the hands of police.

The piece of evidence was a picture taken from an iPhone, which had been geotagged automatically by the internal GPS unit of the phone. While the case went on later to expose the woman as having staged her own kidnapping, the technologies we use every day could both be a help and a hindrance in perpetuating our own safety. Specifically, this article will talk about ways that criminals use technology to get closer to us or to take advantage of the system. It will also talk about things you can do to prevent this from happening and new technologies that may help you maintain a safer and more secure lifestyle for you and your family.

Without question, technology permeates our daily lives, from our cell phone to the completely interactive entertainment options in our homes. While we may never think of the same things that criminals employ to take advantage of us, we can use their minds as resources against them.

In order to outsmart a criminal, one must think like a criminal; as uncomfortable as it may be, the state of the world almost requires this. It may be in our best interest to at least take a superficial look at how criminals think so that we may avoid becoming victims all too easily.

Geotagging

Geotagging is an incredible feature present on a vast majority of the smart phones produced today. GPS (global positioning system) is a technology designed originally by the military; it was later released into the private markets and now is in the spotlight with private industry trying to uncover its best uses.  GPS uses military and private industry satellites to triangulate a specific location based on the unit’s response to the distance to that specific satellite. In the simplest terms, a GPS unit receives a signal from as few as three satellites and then uses that information based on distance to tell somebody exactly where on the planet they are. As a feature for pictures, this “geotagging” function allows an individual to keep a good record of where the picture was taken to assist them in cataloging their memories (at least that’s the theory).

Cyber stalkers are people who look online to find their victims or to carry out their crimes. While stalking may not be an overtly violent crime, there is certainly potential for the actions of a stalker to escalate into an unexpected and uncontrollable situation. When someone posts a picture to the Internet to share amongst their friends on the social network, for instance, there are ways to determine the geotag very simply from the photo.  It could take someone less than twenty seconds to determine where that person is in a picture they post. This type of information, while once privileged, can now be dangerous. It’s important for users of smart phone, and all the wonderful interactive and socially based technologies available to us to understand:

  1. What features your technology uses.
  2. How to avoid automatically using the ones that put you at risk.

Each of these geotagging features used in smart phones includes the ability to be able to modify the information embedded into a photo or shut off the geotagging system altogether. It could be an important two minutes that you spend removing this feature or setting up ways to monitor which photos receive the tags.

Social Media

Facebook and Twitter, as well as other social media outlets, have become moneymaking businesses as millions of people try to become more connected using the digital environment.

The problem however, is that people could be giving out too much information on the social networks. Whether we make an overt choice to post information or simply use the automatic functions of the social networks, these tools may put us more at risk than we think.

It’s interesting how focused we are on our security on the Internet when it comes to protecting our financial data or against computer viruses, but that same prudence is lacking when we give out personal information in our daily social media interactions.

Perhaps we feel safer because social media functions have had such a quick rise in popularity and usage. Perhaps we just feel insulated because we think we have “locked” our accounts to a specific circle of friends we trust. Since we trust who sees our information, we’re willing to put almost any information out on the Web. Whatever the case may be, the fact of the matter is that too much of our personal information is making its way through to people that we wouldn’t ordinarily want to have that information.

Here’s a simple example:

You post pictures of your kindergartner to share with your friends on your new Facebook profile.  You caption it: “Katie with Mrs. Rosa on teacher appreciation day at Fairbanks Elementary.”  Even if you don’t overtly put that much information out there, for instance: “Katie with Mrs. Rosa” or “Katie at school” or even “my baby at school,” there may be enough information for a child predator to obtain information allowing them to be in contact with your child.

The first caption, without any other research, may give out enough information to find your child coming out of the classroom.

The second: “Katie with Mrs. Rosa” could help them find the school, and that, combined with your last name (easily obtained from your social media profile information) and a (unsuspecting) student helper in the administrative office, your child could easily be taken from school, without your permission or knowledge.

From the third caption, if a local predator knows what the school looks like, he could easily find the classroom.

From the fourth caption, if the background of the picture contains any identifying information, it could instantly prove to be a problem, as a predator could now use it to gain access to your family.

The information could be contained within a “geotag” on the photo as well.

Here are some simple fixes:

  • Be careful who you grant access to on your social media networks. (This could be as simple as separating your work from personal accounts.) It comes down to this: How well do you actually know these people? Even if you know them well, an unsettlingly high percentage of sexual predators know their victim(s) well.
  • Adjust your privacy settings and check them often to ensure they are intact.
  • Be careful when you send out locational information, and if you really must, try to do it after the fact, while you are not there (ex. “I’m at Chili’s restaurant on Fifth Ave.”).
  • If you are on vacation, try not to publicize it—many people on your timelines and in your social networks may be tempted to take advantage of it.

Predators exist everywhere, so be sure to exercise caution when you are letting information out onto the net.  The more cautious you are, the better chance you have of maintaining your safety. In a world that is increasingly more connected, do you best to maintain your level of comfort, not some predetermined and unrealistic level of comfort about your personal information.

No matter what we do, criminals will always have the ability to think like criminals and the willpower to accomplish many things that could harm us. In the end it’s up to us as law-abiding citizens to understand the technologies we use and how to use them safely.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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