Privacy on the line at Dal data conference

Online citizens learn to increase security


Dealing with the overlap between our digital and private lives will be the focus at the Data Privacy Day conference. (Photo: Patrick Odell)

Dealing with the overlap between our digital and private lives will be the focus at the Data Privacy Day conference. (Photo: Patrick Odell)

Alicia Belanger locks down her Facebook profile to protect her online privacy — and to keep her parents out.

The second-year Dalhousie student knows the pitfalls of using social networking sites — private information leaking to unwanted parties and identity theft are two major risks — but she says that many of her friends don't pay as much attention to their online security.

"People creep Facebook way too much," she said. "A lot of my friends don't know most of their profile is visible to anyone." That means potentially anyone can access pictures, comments, and personal contact information.

Online privacy will be the focus of the fourth annual Data Privacy Day conference at Dalhousie University on Wednesday.

Alicia Belanger is active on Facebook, but puts her privacy first. (Photo: Patrick Odell)

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Alicia Belanger is active on Facebook, but puts her privacy first. (Photo: Patrick Odell)

Privacy tips from the pros

Bullock and McNutt have a few tips on how people can be more aware of their online privacy:

• Google your own name and see what's attached to it.
• Think about how much data you're giving out. Your birthday is fine, but your entire birthdate is risky.
• Know where your data is stored. Personal gadgets may contain more of your information than you realize.
• Be careful about installing Facebook applications. Third-party applications may share data even if your privacy settings are secure.
• Send résumés in PDF format. These files embed less personal information than Microsoft Word documents.

John Bullock, one of the event's organizers, says it is aimed at helping people of all ages understand the complexities involved with safeguarding personal data.

"People are carrying around more and more data, and I think that's something we should be concerned about," he said.

Bullock, who is also the information security manager for Dalhousie's IT department, says another challenge for users is differentiating between obscurity and privacy.

"We have to balance wanting to be known with controlling what we're giving out," he said.

Ryan McNutt, Dalhousie's new media officer, is responsible for giving Dalhousie a presence on social media websites. One of five guests slated to present at the conference, his message is the same as Bullock's.

"We all have remarkable power to shape what is placed online," he said. "My objective is to help people recognize the power and use it responsibly."

McNutt says a big concern with young people is that they do not fully understand the implications of what they share. People can fall into the trap of sharing because all their friends are doing it.

Bullock says his own observations have led him to believe students become more aware of online privacy when they come to university. McNutt adds that there is no age group that is especially vulnerable, but that people who are new to digital life are more at risk.

"The challenge is that it's so easy to get caught up in the thrill of that positivity," McNutt said of new social media users. "They may have information that's more public than they realize."

Online at work

Belanger says one of her friends learned that lesson unexpectedly. Her roommate found her friend's profile on Facebook and was able to view everything --pictures, statuses, and wall posts. She says her friend then enlisted her to improve her profile's security.

Complicating matters for students is the potential for future employers to see all that personal information.

McNutt says some employers understand that people have private lives away from their jobs, but others are still learning how to deal with it.

"Employers have to be comfortable with people having an online identity," he said.

Even with the growing presence of social media in the workplace, Belanger says she is still careful.

"If you're trying to get a job, you don't want people to see what you did on the weekend," Belanger said.

Open access publishing

The conference will also deal with other risks to online privacy. Speakers will be talking about how websites track users, where big businesses store user data and why privacy should matter to users.

McNutt says despite privacy concerns, social networking is still a very useful tool because the barrier to publishing is so low.

"A society that encourages self-expression is a good one," he said. "It's about the exposure of material that will have an impact on people's lives."

Bullock says it's a double-edged sword because the barrier can be too low at times.

"We should be prepared to only publish what we would put on a billboard," he said. "Too many times we post something and think it's going to be short-lived.

"We have to think of it as permanent."

As for Belanger's parents, they're not completely cut off. But Belanger says they're in the group that she keeps at arm's length to ensure her privacy is protected.

"They have a limited profile of me," she said. "They're my friends but they can't see most of it."

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Not everyone can make it to the conference so we plan to post videos. If interested check starting next week.

Posted by John Bullock | Jan 25, 2022