The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.

Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare

Oversharing is a thing, and I’m not overly fond of it. In fact, I’m overtly over it. The easiest way to protect your privacy is to keep from sharing too much personal information in the first place. Just because you’ve done it, it’s been done to you, or you’ve felt it doesn’t mean everyone, or anyone has to know about it.

Avoiding TMI, or having a social media post labeled “awkward” is your first line of defense when it comes to privacy, as twins Lara and Sofia of Atherton, California would tell you. But what’s too much? You’d think it would be easier for adults to know where the boundaries are, but given the sheer number of adults who have been fired for their social media activity, you might be surprised at how little discretion adults have sometimes.

Facebook, which was the center of my social media world since 2008, is a minor player for some teens according to the small group of teens in Like. Flirt. Ghost: A Journey into the Social Media Lives of Teens and that appears to be for two reasons: it’s the most public-facing social media app they use (Is LinkedIn dead yet? It’s not? Wow.) and it’s the least convenient to post to/update. As a result, teens use Facebook more as a CV/resume site, so they’re unlikely to be indiscreet on it.

This implies that there are other social media platforms people can post to quickly and easily, lowering the bar and removing barriers to sharing, like Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat. And of course, instant messaging apps (WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, Viber, Hangouts, Wechat, etc.) remove all skill and public barriers when two people or a small group wants to chat and share.

The lure of quasi privacy and the intoxicating ease and speed of these apps can lower inhibitions, leading to situations that occasionally turn out very badly, even tragically due to shame. Of course, we’ve all heard of teens getting into trouble for sending a nude selfie that gets shared around the school. Duplication is one of the things new media does exceptionally well, and that can be a nightmare for privacy.

Trillions of electrons have been spilled talking about teens not really understanding how their oversharing affects their future, but I’m not so teens need to understand how a nude selfie might harm their future as much as they need to understand that their need to pause before posting on a particular platform needs to be in inverse proportion to how difficult it is to post on that platform. When I took driver’s ed in high school, we had to watch Red Asphalt, which tried to do for driving recklessly or under the influence what Reefer Madness tried to do for marijuana in general, scare the poo out of teens (the intended audience for both films). Red Asphalt is up to #6, so it must be popular, or authorities’ fear of the teen ability to cause real or imagined harm rages on as violently as ever. (Yes, I know the statistics say younger people cause more accidents than older, more experienced drivers, but what do you expect? I’d be shocked if young, inexperienced drivers didn’t make more mistakes than experienced drivers. Wouldn’t you?)

I don’t think scaring teens with endless tales of ruined lives, literally and figuratively, is the best way to go about it. In my opinion, it’s kind of like expecting the death penalty to deter violent crime. Dwelling on the consequences of what you’re doing really isn’t a high priority when you’re in the grip of insanity, whether it takes the form of wanting to get high, or trying to impress your crush.

What I think does work is to help them resist peer pressure, give students a way to talk about peer pressure, self-esteem, depression, the social pressures they face. Give them the space (virtual and physical), time and language to talk about the social environment they’re navigating. Kids yearn to belong, to be part of a group, though the group doesn’t necessarily have to be at their school or even local, which is why the internet is an amazing space. People can find peers and mentors for emotional, academic, and social bonds.

Part 2: Technical Shields

I really like Thorin Klosowski’s article on the New York Times site, 7 Simple Ways to Protect Your Digital Privacy for a variety of reason, not the least of which is I’m already doing more than half of them.

  1. Secure your accounts: While I’m working my way through the sites I belong to that have been breached (14!) and changing my passwords, I have been using LastPass for years, and I can’t recommend it enough. I got my wife to start using it and she loves it as well. And the guy at my school who teaches coding. And other people at my school. And my mom. And my mother-in-law. And her dog. Ok, so not her dog, but I would if I could. If you’ve been online for more than a year, you have a lot of accounts. All of those accounts have usernames and passwords. All of your passwords should be different and they shouldn’t be easy to guess. And you shouldn’t physically write them down anywhere. You’ll love LastPass (or whatever your password manager of choice is) more and more everyday. I’m not even joking or exaggerating.
  2. Update your software and devices: My Android phone consistently updates every single app every single week, or at least it seems that way. I’m glad it does, and I’m glad I have access to fast wi-fi and that my my mobile phone plan has a very generous data cap. My Chromebook (my main personal machine) pushes OS and app updates pretty regularly. Same with my Windows 10 workstation at school. I make sure my OS and apps are all set to automatically check for updates, though not necessarily to download and install them. Some apps, like Adobe Acrobat, are set to install other stuff (e.g. Norton Anti-Virus) by default along with the update. No thanks dude, I’m good, you keep that extra junk to yourself. I hate having to opt-out of something like that. It’s lame and definitely beneath Adobe.
  3. Protect your web browsing:
    1. Already had an ad blocker running, though not Klosowski’s recommended uBlock Origin.
    2. I uninstalled my previous one and installed uBlock when I read the article.I didn’t know about Privacy Badger at all, and now I’ve installed it too.
    3. I’ll have to check out Simple Opt Out, which cuts down on major sites’ data collection. The list of companies is quite long and it will take a long time to opt-out of all of them, especially because many of them require you to call. Yep, that’s a pain.
    4. I already have HTTPS Everywhere installed on all of the browsers I use on my laptop and my workstation.
    5. My wife and I already use a good VPN and have set up a VPN flash router at home. Our VPN works on our mobile devices as well.
  4. Don’t install sketchy software: Duh.
  5. Use antivirus software on your computer:
    1. I use Windows Defender at work.
    2. I’ve been using Malwarebytes for years on most of the Windows machines I’ve used. Considering my wife is constantly working with sensitive student records, I’ll recommend she use Malwarebytes on her school and personal Mac laptops.
  6. Lock down your phone in case you lose it: I think I already have this covered, but I’ll check this week.
  7. Enable encryption on your laptop: Do I need to do this with my Chromebook? Can I do this on my Chromebook? Time to find out.

All of my critical stuff and even moderately important stuff is in the cloud, mostly on Google Drive, so I’m good. I’m cynical and distrustful of software from companies I haven’t heard of before, so that helps. I’m a little paranoid, and that’s good.

Probably the best thing I can do to help the other teachers at my school and the students is to pass along this article so they can at least be automatically protected from some of the dumber mistakes I’ve made.