Information and Communication Technology

How to be safe online

and help others be safe online as well


The fact that you are reading this means that you have an online presence, and that carries both risks and responsibilities.

This web page is safe, probably, well I would say that wouldn't I. But there are many other pages and web sites and people that are not so safe or pleasant to deal with.

This  page looks at some of the less safe things that are out there and how you can protect yourself from them so that you can be safe online.

The page also looks at what you can do to keep other people safe online, how to behave responsibly and avoid becoming one of those less safe things yourself.


Personal information

If you want to be safe online, protect your personal information














There are many web sites that require a user to enter personal information in order to use the site. In most cases there will be a good reason for requiring the information and the site will have a privacy and security policy to ensure that those details are not misused.

In fact in many parts of the world it is a legal requirement to keep personal information safe.

Unfortunately, not all sites are covered by data protection laws and even the ones that are may use dubious methods to reduce the privacy and security requirements. e.g. sites may require visitors to tick a, sometimes small and obscure, box to opt out of having their details passed on to third parties for marketing purposes.

A further problem is that of spoof or phishing sites, which are set up to capture information for criminal purposes. These sites are often designed to look exactly like a legitimate site such as an on-line bank or e-commerce site. In may cases they will ask for the expected information such as login details, and then pass the user on to the real site so that they are unaware of the security breach.

There are ways to reduce the risk of personal information falling into the wrong hands.

One of the main ones is the use of anti-phishing software. This is built in to most modern browsers and works by checking the address of each web page visited against a database of known or suspect addresses.

Tests of the most common browsers with built in anti-phishing show that they detect well over 90% of phishing sites. Their weakness however is that they can only detect sites that have been found and reported. For this reason, heuristic methods are being added to some anti-phishing software. This approach looks for characteristics in the page that are common on phishing sites.

A second approach to safeguarding personal information is the use of HTTPS and site certificates.

Simplified, this means that the site has been registered with a trusted certificate authority, e.g. Symantec.

The certificate authority then issues an electronic key (certificate) for the site. This key can then be checked by a browser to ensure that it is the correct one for the site.

Although anti-phishing software and certificates greatly improve the chances of keeping personal information safe, neither of them can guarantee safety. If users want to be safe online, they must also play their part, not least by not over-riding phishing or certificate warnings in their browser.

In addition users must employ common sense and not disclose information to a site unless it is really needed.

Misuse of images

If you want to be safe online, be careful with pictures of yourself

There is a growing perception in many countries that any picture or video of a child could potentially be misused for criminal purposes. This may be to help in 'grooming' a child for abuse, for photo-manipulation to turn them into child pornography, or for simply representing that child as participating in an action or activity that they have had no part in.

Important. Although there have been numerous, well documented cases of image misuse of these types, don't panic.

The numbers of children involved are statistically quite small and there are some simple steps that can be taken to reduce any risk.

To put things in perspective. In 2008, Interpol, an international police organization, with 188 member countries, stated that they had images of 20,000 abused children on their database. The child population (under 15) of those member countries is well over 1,500,000,000

This equates to a 1 in 750000 chance of a child ending up on the database. There will certainly be many other images that do not get onto the database, but by any standard, a very small percentage of children are likely to be affected.

That only a small percentage of children are affected is not, of course, much consolation for the ones that are. It is therefore sensible to try and reduce the risk where possible, without becoming paranoid about it.

Three simple steps that can be taken are:


Appropriate language

If you want to be safe online, be careful about what you say

People use different styles of language for different situations.

An official letter to a bank manager is likely to look different to a quick note to a friend. The problem is that when a message is sent over the Internet, be it an e-mail, an Instant Message, or even a web cam conversation, there is no guarantee that it will stop at the recipient.

In fact it is probably safest to assume that any message that is sent over the Internet may become publicly available. There are ways to send messages securely, but you then have to rely on the discretion of the recipient, who may decide to send it on to someone else or even put it on a web site.


It is therefore a good idea to try to use language that will not get you into trouble if the message 'escapes'. Essentially, if you would be embarrassed if the message were seen by your friends, mother, teacher, boss, etc. You should think twice before sending it.

This is not to say that freedom of expression is not allowed, there are plenty of places where robust, even heated and acrimonious discussions take place about all manner of topics. But, anyone posting message in such places knows that their words are on view to the world and are presumably happy for anyone to read them.

Confidentiality

Being safe online is a two way process, don't be the one that causes the problem

It is probably safest to assume that any message that is sent over the Internet may become publicly available, since you cannot guarantee that the recipient will not pass it on. For this reason, people need to be careful about what they send and who they send it to.

People should also be careful about what they do with received messages. If someone sends a confidential message, there is an expectation that the recipient will respect that confidentiality. You wouldn't want someone to spread your confidential stuff around the Internet, so you shouldn't do that to other people without a very good reason.

There may also be a legal obligation, under Data Protection laws, to keep the message confidential.


Social networking

If you want to be safe online, be cautious when using social networking

The use of social networking sites has been growing steadily over the last few years. As of 2013, Facebook alone had over 1,110,000,000 accounts.

With this number of accounts involved, and many more on other social networking sites, it should not be a surprise that some people have taken advantage of the opportunity to commit fraud and other criminal acts.


One of the main characteristics of social networking, is that a lot of personal information gets posted. This can lead to the problems discussed above under misuse of images and appropriate language.

In addition, the personal information available via social networking is a good source for fraudsters and identity thieves. Many e-commerce sites use a subscriber's email address for a username and many people use passwords based on personal information, e.g. birthdates, parent's names, pets' names, favourite singer.

Even if the password is not based on personal information, the e-commerce site may well have a 'secret question' that will allow access when a password has been forgotten. These secret questions often refer to personal information, because people will be more likely to remember the answers.

Another characteristic of social networking is that it makes it very easy to spread information. Sometimes this can be a useful thing. e.g. advertising events, organising meetings. Sometimes it can be a problem. e.g. a party invitation sent to a private group gets out into a public arena and 500 people turn up at your house.

Because of the amount of personal information that is put out through social networking sites, and the ease with which it can spread, it is important that people who use social networking take a few simple safety precautions. Such as:

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