Home > Computers and Internet, Life or something like it > The (Not So) Common Sense of Online Safety

The (Not So) Common Sense of Online Safety

10/04/2010

Online anonymity is often looked upon as a good thing. It allows us to escape the world outside our front door, family and peer pressures, obligations expected of us and experience and investigate things we are often too self-conscious to try in reality. It allows us the ability to research ideas, events, or experiences outside of what we couldn’t otherwise experience within our own neighborhood and even immediate surroundings. It even allows us to make friends with like-minded people with similar tastes; be they across the city (and still impossible to reach), or halfway across the world. Sometimes it even can be used to escape ourselves and be someone we’re not… Like pretending to be a famous adventurer, or nauseatingly rich and well to do, or even someone glamorous and famous… It’s the very sort of things that used to do as children: pretending to be an astronaut speeding from star to star, or a fireman saving people’s lives, or police officer chasing and busting bad guys.

While doing this is often deemed good and even healthy and therapeutic at the same time there are those out there that don’t hold the same level of respect or value for their current man. It is from that one should consider along with respect one’s fellow man (as I had talked about previously), one should also be cautious of them as well. After all; humanity is one of the races known for preying upon itself sometimes at great emotional and physical harm. It is from that sad fact, that I bring up this topic of conversation.

1. The Internet is not and has never been for children.

Like my parents who thought that television was a perfectly acceptable alternative toward babysitting me, parents nowadays too often let their children come online and too often allow their wandering the various forums, chats, and social settings without any checks and balances in place for their offspring’s safety. While I’m not going to be joining the bandwagon any time in the near future of the frothing conservative maniacs pushing all sorts of legislature or getting up on the parapets screaming “think of the children!” in order to push some sort of agenda; I am however of an old-school mindset that children should be allowed monitored and chaperoned time online (just like in a public setting) with a parental monitoring — either through key-loggers or direct intervention — to ensure both the child’s safety as well as be there to explain the common sense of discriminately trusting what they are seeing on the screen. Surprisingly (or not depending on how well you know me), I am of the mindset that this should apply strongly and strictly to anyone under the age of 15. As a child reaches 18, naturally strict monitoring should be made more lax as the child is reaching adulthood and should by this time already have some (if not most of the faculties) for being cautious and observant to potential dangers.

I have a couple of examples I would like to draw attention to in my years online that have left me having the jaw hit the desk and wondering what the hell these parents are doing/thinking with this going on:

  1. My first example — an acquaintance of mine in Pennsylvania who had a sister significantly younger than him met her boyfriend online. She was 15 at the time. Fell in love with him and tried to elope by running away from Pennsylvania to her boyfriend’s home on Ohio. They had sex sometime shortly after they got together and having nowhere to live and he being 15 or 16 at the time, the boyfriend tried hiding her in his room. Of course, that was discovered rather quickly and she was shipped back to her parents, but not without her becoming pregnant with this boy’s child. She came to term and gave birth to a boy. The parents of the boyfriend ensured he would not have any contact with her and even so much as denying visitation of custody claims thereby forcing her and her parents to raise the child. The girl never graduated from high school and the last I heard was living off of welfare. Because time had passed, the boy had lost interest and from what I had last heard from my acquaintance, hasn’t kept in contact with her or their child either.
  2. My second example comes from recent history (and I’m sure some folk will recognize the source of this example too) — we had a 13 year old; just turned 14 year old girl claiming her boyfriend in a public chat setting was admittedly 18 years old. While the I hadn’t been able to determine the full truth to all this is; with what little facts were presented was that this sort of online relationship was both against the rules of the channel as well as the network it was occurring on. (It’s a sticky thing with international users, with laws falling to the server and the state/country the server was situated in, but in all cases, the service will err on the side of extreme caution and will request this sort of thing be squelched as quickly as possible). When confronted with this breach of user rules, the 13 year old just turned 14 claimed that her parents knew about it and were perfectly accepting of such a relationship online. When it was squelched, within 24 hours the 18 year old created his own chat death stating on various social sites that he had committed suicide (and causing quite the stir in the middle of the media reporting three suicides by harassment that have been in the media). Consequently an Admin Acquaintance of mine has been able to corroborate that the person that supposedly committed suicide not only continues to log into the account for the person that had committed suicide, but has also created three new accounts with the same e-mail account and IP address associated to the original.

And this is just scratching the surface to the things I’ve seen in dealing with minors online. I’m sure I can dig through my memory and find other stories that would and can boggle the imagination. Though I think these two examples more than adequate.

To make matters worse, I’ve watched these kids under the age of 15 share information with a total stranger without even a second thought as to what they’re sharing, and clearly not knowing (or even comprehending) that such uniquely identifying information trace them right to the front doorstep of their home. And I can’t help but ask myself, “what are these parents thinking?!” More importantly, “Where are these parents to teach them the value of discretion?!”

So if you have children — watch them — like a hawk. Else the examples I’ve given (and some that are far worse) can happen to them. The Internet is for adults, and should always be treated as such.

2. If you are using the Internet for an escape — be clear and up front about that escape from the start.

In my years of being online, I have sometimes run into a small subset of people that use the Internet as an escape from a lot of the things going on in their lives. While I don’t usually mingle with this subset of people too often as I don’t like people treating only socializing as that sort of playing field, there are times where I will find them charming and entertaining enough to chat with them before they wander back to wherever it is they came from.

As I have said before (and feel the need to stress again) I have come to see these sort of people as girls pretending to be boys, and boys pretending to be girls. From those trying to be something spectacular or famous, rich, or poor, even those pretending things too supernatural for this world. From those adults trying to be children, and children trying to be adults. The problem with this is that a majority of the people that come online, want to be more themselves (with perhaps a little more glitz or cool than they have in reality) and will put more of themselves into their presentation online, just as they do (or in some cases eventually will do) in reality.

If it’s just an escape — if you view coming online as just a game for therapy or stress relief — be upfront about it from the start. Be clear in your want not to share any personal information, or if you’re wanting to be something you’re not as a means of entertainment or escape. Most people will oblige your want for secrecy, and even give to you what you need most — an outlet to being something you aren’t in reality. Those that won’t will be polite and might even point you in the direction of community of people that will be better suited for such needs. But never build any sort of dialog with another human being on a set of lies.

And these are the reasons why:

  1. The longer a person is around someone — either in real time or online — the more that someone begins to invest their feelings (respect, admiration, and yes even love), their trust, and their want for honesty in their friendship for and with that person. It’s the way that we as a race build and form communities and tribes. It’s something a million years of evolution has built into us that isn’t going to go away any time soon… So this should be kept in mind particularly when online and trying to momentarily escape reality by creating a completely fictitious persona.
  2. No matter the act one puts on, it is human nature for a person to return to their base personality and those truths of that personality will come shining through. Even the pathological liar who tries their best to be something they’re not will let truths of their lives slip through either consciously or unconsciously. Further, personality traits and manners of communication are identifiable online as moles, tattoos and even scars on one’s body can identify a person in reality. So just because you decide to change your name and personality either to escape or to deceive purposefully — rest assured that something of your own personality will shine through and people will remember — from one online persona to the next (and to the next).
    1. In conjunction to the point above (b), keep in mind that it takes far more effort and energy for a person to maintain lies or a fictitious persona than it is to simply tell the truth. While some people are rather good at making a career of lies, the amount of energy necessary for remembering the lies from the truth becomes more and more difficult. This is because of the energy needed to keep track of what is a lie, and what is truth. There’s quite a bit of wisdom in the old saying, “Oh what a wicked web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” particularly when deciding to habitually lie about personal information.
  3. The bottom line I’m trying to make here is this: it is a dangerous and oftentimes slippery slope of consequences that almost always end badly for the person caught. The betrayal and subsequent backlash for being caught lying about oneself or being caught for being a fake grow almost exponentially the longer one maintains the fallacies. Further, many people have been burned by constant and habitual liars (online and in reality) and will take such a person to task; often going out of their way to practically persecute the person and humiliate the person caught to ensure they will never be seen within that community (or clique or even tribe) ever again.

So keep in mind if one is wanting to escape the reality of their lives. It is by far easier to simply not answer touchy questions or kindly turn down requests for personal information if one is looking for anonymity. Lying is only going to end tragically when the truth is revealed. And the truth does invariably get revealed.

After all, there’s another saying that comes to mind that would be better than practicing deceit, which goes, “Discretion is the better part of valor.

3. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

It has been my experience that some people are just that trusting; either because of simple naiveté or the unending optimism that humanity can be as good as it wishes. The rest of us however, having been disappointed by the nature of mankind, hurt or betrayed — sometimes quite a lot — leaving us sometimes untrusting, paranoid, and sometimes even embittered when dealing with one’s fellow man. Don’t get me wrong — being cautious is good. Being wise with one’s caution better.

I would like to play devil’s advocate for a moment when I say that while there are some really creepy and underhanded people out there, the Bell Curve of averages indicates that the majority of people are going to be somewhere in the middle between angel and devil/paragon of truth and despicable lying bastard. Don’t let the bad and the pessimism of one’s own nature get the best of the better side. Instead learn from that experience of being hurt, by realizing that you have a battery of tools at one’s disposal to research and even find the truth when necessary and stop getting hurt again before it happens. Following are some suggestions to follow when dealing with people online and on the whole:

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I. Believe only half of what you see, and nothing that you hear.

Wise words from a woman (Dinah Craik) that one should always be kept in mind when dealing with both the news-media and the online medium. And while there’s more than a touch of cynicism to that phrase, it’s certainly good to always keep in mind when dealing with people in your life. Always take what’s told to you with a grain of salt, and assume a little that what they’re telling you might not be the whole truth. While there’s the saying “Understanding is a three-edged sword. Your side, their side; and the truth“; don’t always blindly assume their side is the truth. It is better to find out how much of it is the truth before finding out much later how much of it was actually fabricated.

In the 21 years I’ve been online I can’t even begin to tell the amount of stories, lies and outright deceit that has passed before my eyes. From staged deaths, to people just not being anything they said they were. The fact is, information can be faked online because there is no checks and balances in place like there is in reality (and even then it’s fairly easy to fake things there too, though I will digress). And while some services do allow to use various checks and balances (like dating services, for example) few people actually take advantage of these checks and balances. Now is as good a time as any to take advantage, if only to have peace of mind that who you’re dealing with is somewhere near to who they say they are.

II. Don’t be afraid to do a little research to determine the validity of truth reaching your ears and eyes.

Unlike in reality where truths and lies and often be determined at the speed of light — determining the truth (or fallacy) online is often much slower. Information can be forged, pictures can be used from other sources, and stories both subtle and gross can be told without any backing whatsoever because the source (of the truth) can be thousands of miles away from where the story is being told.

Hell, in my time, I’ve learned that voice/VOIP conversations can be forged along with webcam feeds too. There are however a couple of litmus tests that can be performed (with the usual caveats that I’ll explain afterward) on determining some validity to a person’s disclosure of information.

  1. If one is in correspondence with someone else in e-mail, one can check to see the origin IP information. It’s a fairly simple operation when dealing with e-mails generated/delivered from Hotmail, Yahoo and even G-Mail as they usually have a line in the headers that says Originating IP: xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx (where that is the IP address). ISP e-mails can be a bit tricky, though such services like Spamcop (http://www.spamcop.net) offer free service to break down originating IP information (and will allow one to verify the validity of the source for the e-mail). I’d also like to add that Spamcop also allows for spam mail to be reported and assist in cutting down the amount of junk mail clogging people’s email boxes at this time.
  2. Most Instant Messengers and especially Skype will provide IP addresses of the computers you are connected to when in an intimate chat through the use of the comment netstat -a (Windows, some forms of Linux) or netstat -n or sudo tcpdump -i en0 (MAC and Older Mac’s respectively) from a command prompt or terminal window. While most newer Messengers like MSN Messenger, AIM and Yahoo will tend to attempt to hide this information for the sake of end-user privacy, these instant messengers will fall back to direct PC-to-PC connection particularly if any sort of webcam/voice chat is opened up. Following are good articles in understanding the information provided from the Netstat command: http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/5100-10878_11-1056024.html and here http://www.scribd.com/doc/6751075/Netstat-Made-Easy
  3. If a person shares a picture, check around and see whether that picture hasn’t been shared in other places. See if other people haven’t attempted to claim it as a self-pic as well. There’s a good chance you can catch it through about 20 minutes of research through Google Pictures or stopping by Fakers Busted (http://fakersbusted.com/), which is a great site for this sort of research.

Don’t be afraid to do this sort of research. It’s better to feel guilty about having to verify that who you’re talking to is at least where they’re saying they’re from, rather than finding out the cascade of lies that prove not only where they not a man (or woman), of age (or underage), and living somewhere they weren’t even remotely living in.

The caveats to this is that when it comes to a PC, headers can be forged and IP addresses can be spoofed. However this often takes quite a lot more skill than the average user can access, and any user that is capable of spoofing such information is also capable of wrecking a greater amount of trouble than simply being deceptive. About the only IP addresses that can’t be spoofed are phone IP addresses; as these are assigned by the carrier, and most smart phones lack the ability to spoof that info or use proxies for their e-mail clients and SMS messages.

III. If you get personal information on someone (name, date of birth, location information): check through public records.

Don’t be afraid to cross the line between online life and reality, particularly if someone suddenly comes on telling you that the friend you had made had died (be it from illness or suicide), and ask for proof of it happening. You can do so by simply asking for a picture or scan of the local newspaper clipping from the obituaries section. Or if the area is well into the information age, asking for a link that points to the obits from the online newspaper source.

Too often players and pathological liars will use some form of dramatic death (suicide, dramatic form of accident, even use terminal illness) as a way to kill off an online persona they have created when it’s in danger of being discovered for being fake or a sham or are simply ready to move on without any feeling of remorse for the stress they had caused to those that cared.

Consider it a form of peace of mind and psychological conclusion to finding out the truth about the end of a friend made online, rather than wondering the fate; only to find out that the very person you thought dead turns out to be still chatting with you under a new persona.

Further, in the ten or so years that I had ridden through the mad lanes of Yahoo Voice Chat, I had learned that people talk big, and queerfolk talk bigger. People often try to boast of their moral superiority when they’re trying to make a point as to whether they’re dealing with is a fake, bully or just plain asshole. People will often give (what they think is) just enough information to prove that their record in this world is clean and tidy and they hold no skeletons in their closet(s). Turns out that if you’re patient, have a long memory (or even use a scratch pad to keep track of some information on a person), they will over the course of time share a whole lot of information about themselves. Name, location, Date of Birth, even historic events surrounding the person.

The world around us has changed in the information age because local, state and even federal government is putting online what was once only obtainable by heading over to the Public Records Office by setting an appointment to check what they have recorded. With a name, a date of birth (or even an approximate date of birth), and a general idea on where they live, one can search various records from news about the person hitting local newspapers, to Court Appearances (from misdemeanor through to felony verdicts). Or in absolutely worst case scenarios finding out the person is registered in a National Sex Offender’s Registry. While most of this information (and the appropriate caveats applying) appears to be strictly to the United States (and Canada), I have been able to find information on people in various parts of South America, Europe and Australia with about the same level of success. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more and more of this information coming online in years to come as well.

Keep in mind that sometimes minors will not show up in these public records, as they don’t always have enough obtainable history to hit some these areas. And alternatively have the luxury of having any juvenile criminal records sealed because becoming adult does allow them the freedom to start anew as an adult. While this is sometimes a good thing, I will stress my first and strongest opinion when it comes to minors online: this is not a place for them to wander freely and without strict supervision.

In my 21 years online, I’ve had the displeasure of uncovering three convicted Sex Offenders (and not the type that have been put on the National Registry because they had been caught urinating in public) passing themselves off as minors and online in spite of the fact that their convictions clearly state no access to computers or the Internet. About ten maybe fifteen people with various felony convictions that included: larceny and grand larceny, embezzlement of company funds, Drunkenness and DUI-related vehicular accident, various Drug Abuses, Assault and Battery and even Tax Evasion (with an outstanding and open warrant). And countless hundreds that when the light of truth has been shined upon them, turn out to be pathological liars and fakes. All of which damning others for their admissions while claiming they were free of guilt of their wrong-doing or conviction of those crimes they themselves have committed.

IV. When all else fails, ask a friend on their opinion of the person.

The truth of the matter is that we often lose our objectivity when attraction or our feelings for a person come into play. Someone tells us something that strikes a chord (or a nerve), and out the window goes the necessary objectivity to determine whether the truth is being told to us, or someone is playing upon our weakness to a scenario or situation. If you have any doubt, about someone — introduce the person to your friends. Let them get a feel of the person. As they might not find themselves attracted to the person in the same way you do — they might be able to see or pick up something about the person you might have missed. Further, they might even know that person and give you a more objective perspective on the person that you can’t get alone.

V. Treat all personal information as a rare earth element (e.g. Gold, Platinum or whatever material worth hundreds or even thousands by the ounce).

Finally, the thing that I have assumed the most through this happy little dissertation, of which I’m going to stress as my final point. As I have shown above, personal information can be damning particularly given how easily we hand it out when we’re being prideful. There’s a darker side to this that I didn’t touch upon. And that is that personal information can be exploited (and will be if in the hands of the entirely wrong sort of people. Do your best to keep honest, and keep discrete with it. Because in a worst case scenario, you might find that personal information used by someone to either exploit you or those around you that call you friend. Hand it out only when you have positively no doubts in your minds that it can be used in a negative manner (or can be used at all).

I think I covered a bit of what’s been bothering me the last couple of weeks, and hope that this serves as the start of a guide for those caught in the lies that I’ve seen… Until another time I feel like getting up on my soapbox…

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