Digital identity and cybersecurity
The Internet was once thought of as a wonderland open to all: a virtual place where ideas and stories could be freely shared. Then came cyberbullying in all of its forms.
As soon as individuals started to establish online digital identities others were looking for ways to exploit them. Many went online innocently to watch cat videos and find old friends while others sought to monetize those interactions through data collection. And they were followed by trolls and cyberbullies who hack accounts, destroy reputations, and spread misinformation.
The internet can still be a safe and productive outlet for hobbyists, friends, researchers, and those just interested in cat videos – with the right protection. Those who do not take steps to shield their identity online may be vulnerable to cyberbullying, an insidious attack on one’s reputation and identity that is hard to prevent and harder to prosecute.
- anonymous in most cases, because bullies are prepared by blocking clues to their identities;
- ruinous, because cyberbullies can slander at will, creating havoc with a person’s job, relationships, and personal security; and
- harmful because it’s publicly visible, thus often shaming the victim into silence and sometimes, suicide.
Cyberbullying laws often overlap with others that prohibit harassment or singling out an individual for racial or ethnic reasons (civil rights violations). Many states have cyberbullying laws that focus on school-age children or that target adults who try to contact children for sex. Legislating online behavior has been challenging because states that try to limit cyberbullying that includes compromising photos shared via text messages (a.k.a. sexting) often end up charging dozens of teens with misdemeanors when one peer’s photo is sent to a wide group of people.
What is your digital identity?
The anonymity of the internet can be fun, but simply providing a pseudonym when surfing the web or participating in social media isn’t enough to mask your identity. Everything we do online leaves a digital trail of “breadcrumbs” or links to our location and actual identity, from the IP (internet protocol) address we use to accounts registered to us and transactions we initiate.
Many companies are in the business of gathering data that connects the dots to form a user profile, whether for shopping or for affinity (clubs, organizations, schools) or for demographic research. With a little effort, they’re able to put together the crumbs to figure out where you bank, how much you’re paid, what you own, who you socialize with, where you travel, the size of your family, and more. This information is very valuable to companies and even governments.
Similarly, hackers can use the information to fake your identity, another form of cyberbullying. If your accounts are unprotected you may be telling them all they need to know to assemble enough pieces of your identity (including your home and work addresses, identification numbers, email addresses, and phone numbers). Using this information by itself or in conjunction with leaked or stolen information from stores or banks, they may open accounts in your name or have identification cards made with your information and their photo.
Hiding your identity online
If hackers and harassers can hide so authorities can’t stop them from their misdeeds, you can do the same to evade data collectors and identity thieves. Experts suggest that most of use could benefit from creating our own secure cyber identity by signing up for a virtual private network (VPN), a subscription-based web browser that encrypts your data. Instead of leaving digital breadcrumbs when you visit websites it prevents data collection and profiling. Be sure there’s one on every device you log in from. Others may want a higher level of security to be shielded from prying government agencies or if they’re selling bitcoin. These extreme secure identity measures include:
- using an anonymous operating system that covers your tracks;
- using burner accounts with unique log-on credentials each time;
- use the TOR network;
- don’t use run-of-the-mill office software.
What’s on the horizon
Companies are investing heavily in identity management measures that authenticate a user before allowing permission to access certain sensitive areas of company data. These measures can require certificates and when authenticated, be used to unlock user-specific content such as training or client information.
As technology advances, it is becoming ever more important to protect and authenticate our online identities. Biometrics like retinal scans and fingerprints are increasingly used to gain access to sensitive offices, workplaces, and for passport verification. Of course some of these data points are shared with government databanks, which can lead to some disturbing surprises, such as JetBlue getting facial recognition data from the U.S. government without consent from the individual involved.