Once, late at night when I was about ten years old, I woke to my father shaking me. “Hannah?” he said. “Come upstairs. Your mom and I want to talk to you.”
This is never a good sign. I followed my father up the stairs with a pit of dread in my stomach; I didn’t know what I’d done (surely my grades were fine? I’d been doing all my homework?) but I knew it couldn’t be good.
Our family desktop was on, and open on the screen was a website called Gaia Online, an anime-themed social networking site. My friends had all started using it, and I’d jumped on the trend. My mother was standing by the computer. She didn’t look happy. “Hannah,” she said, “we want you to tell us why this person you’ve been messaging asked where you live.”
I panicked. The person in question, who had a cheerfully interesting avatar and a cool username, had been messaging me about an online role-playing game we were both involved in; I’d been happy to make a new friend. They’d asked where I lived, once, and I’d dodged the question and continued talking to them. After all, I figured, what was the harm?
My parents, who immediately ordered me to delete the conversation and never talk to the person again, saw our conversation in a different light. Who knew what this stranger wanted, why they’d been trying to find out information about a pre-teen girl? The Internet was a weird place, the Internet was a dangerous place, and you needed to protect yourself, you needed to be safe –
Not long ago, my parents called me for our weekly Skype. The window popped up on the screen; I could see them, but my screen showed only darkness. For a few seconds we were confused – then, “oh,” I said, “I have a Band-Aid on my webcam, lemme peel it off.”
“Why do you have a Band-Aid on your camera?” said my mother disbelievingly.
“Oh, because she’s afraid the government is watching,” said my dad, and they both laughed.
So whatever happened to Internet safety?
Part of the answer, of course, is that parents actually started using the Internet and promptly decided it wasn’t so bad after all. Around the time that parents started telling Mark Zuckerberg their birthdays, hometowns, family members, and favorite flavors of ice cream, they stopped worrying so much about what their children were doing on the computer. After all, this wasn’t the big, scary Internet, with stalkers and hackers; it was Facebook. Their friends were on Facebook!
Then came more social media, and suddenly anybody could get famous. My mother is an English teacher; one of her students has a YouTube channel, a cooking show. As of this writing, the channel has 353,345 subscribers, and one of the more popular videos has over 2 million views. The student has a business deal with Dreamworks!
If you type the name of the show into Google, the first result that shows up is “[name of the show] age”. It’s highly unlikely that the people typing this want to know how old the YouTube channel is; they want to know the age of its host. And while this isn’t necessarily creepy – after all, they could just be curious for innocent reasons – it’s not difficult for anyone to find the student’s last name, the high school she goes to, and, yes, her age: 16 years old.
Again, the student has a deal with Dreamworks; an amazing opportunity like that is worth just about anything, including a little laxity with your personal information. But the total reverse of adults’ ideas about how teens should handle their personal information on the Internet is astonishing.
We know from Edward Snowden that NSA workers, for the most part 18-22 year-old men, routinely pass around naked photos of women they find attractive that they’ve intercepted via mass surveillance. And we know from the Jennifer Lawrence hacking scandal that nude photos are stored in iCloud, and that hackers can access them.
Teens and minors certainly aren’t exempt from mass surveillance. And teens and minors certainly share compromising information over the Internet: their home addresses, their phone numbers, the minute details of their lives, even sexually explicit texts and photos (though I’m sure their parents wish they didn’t share the last). And these home addresses, phone numbers, and everything else are almost certainly intercepted – by corporations, by hackers, or by government agencies that practice dragnet surveillance.
So why don’t we have the same outraged reaction to government and corporate surveillance that my mother did to a stranger on the Internet asking where I lived? After all, I could have simply answered the stranger, “California”, and that would have been all. Any given NSA worker can learn the location of my dorm, my sexuality, the state of my mental health, what music I prefer, how often I call my parents, where I work – the list goes on. This is very, very revealing information to hand over to a 21-year-old geek.
In sixth grade, a police officer came into class to talk to us about Computer Safety. He told us how if we shared any information on the Internet – anything, ever – a stalker would find us and pretend to be our boyfriend and then kidnap us; that we shouldn’t get Myspace accounts, or Facebook accounts, or any kind of account; that we should never, ever share any information with anybody without telling our parents first.
In 2014, a federal agent seized photos and personal information from a woman after arresting her, and used that personal information to create a fake Facebook account for her to help him with his drug investigations. Times change.
I know I’ve revealed more information on the Internet than I should: my full name, my email address, where I live, photos of me, and more are all more or less available via Google. Hell, the act of having a blog is itself a massive violation of the old rule “don’t talk to strangers”. But I don’t think I’ll be taking the Band-Aid off my webcam anytime soon.
After all, I was always told to keep myself safe on the Internet.