Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


Teens Header

   Internet Safety Topics
   Communicating Online
   Socializing Online
   Sharing Images Online
   Gaming Online
   Spending & Saving Online
   Identity Theft
   Computing on the Go
   Bullying Online
   Defensive Computing
   Defending your Computer

You’re a commodity
Terms and conditions
Settings and permissions
Identity theft
Who is exposing you online?
Information is permanent

groupInternet safety isn’t about a bunch of rules telling you “never do this”, or trying to scare you into safe behavior. Internet safety is about avoiding being being ripped off, disrespected, bullied, scammed, or stalked while you’re just trying to have a good time online. You don’t need to be sold on all the really great opportunities the Internet offers, but you do need to understand how to dodge problems.  

Staying safer just takes learning a few things

Most of you are already pretty good at using the online sites you’re interested in or have friends that help you. Over 60 percent of you have already taken steps to be safer online.

But there is a real difference between the steps you’ve taken to be safe online and what it really takes to be safe and savvy online. The difference has nothing to do with how skilled you are at using Internet services - even the most advanced Web developer has to learn how to be safe online because the dangers come from other people, not programming code.


commodityYou are a commodity

The way ‘free’ services make money is not by selling advertising. What they sell is access to you, and information about you to advertisers, marketers and researchers, and others. Your information is also used by others looking to track people for various purposes.

Every piece of information you post, and every action you take online has commercial value to someone. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Your information helps companies provide you ads that are more targeted to your interests, it helps researchers know what kind of products to design, and so on. But your information is also used in negative and sometimes criminal ways. For example:

  • By someone who wants to embarrass or bully you.
  • Plagiarists who want to claim your content as their own
  • By companies who want to use your information in ways that act against your interests
    • Insurance companies are using information posted on blogs to deny coverage of medical claims, car accident claims, and so on.
    • Companies may reject your job application, find reasons to fire you, and so on.
  • By criminal organizations or individuals building profiles of people to scam, steal identities, hijack computers, find interesting homes to break into or cars to steal,  people to physically harm, and so on

As you provide information consider how it is being sold, bought, or simply taken and make sure you’re okay with potential outcomes. Learn how information as a commodity relates to taking surveyschat, discussion boards, and forumsonline datingcreating safe personal e-mail aliasessharing Images and Video, and gaming online.

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Why the terms and conditions matter on your profiles and sites

conditionsYou may be surprised to learn that many sites you are likely to use include in their usage terms the right to use any of your information in any way they choose. If they own your content and profile, and your information is ‘repurposed,’ there isn’t much you can do about it.

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If you don't understand what the settings and permissions really mean, they might not be what you intend

jessicaExample 1) This 23-year-old set her social networking site to private. But on this ‘private’ page we learn much more than she imagined.

Her first name is Jessica, her last name is Massing (look at the URL). We know what she looks like and her ethnic background. How she dresses says a lot about the group she hangs with as well as her socio-economic status. We also know what city and state she lives in. Finding her phone number and address is just a search away. Finding articles about her in her local newspaper or on her school Web site is just a matter of another search.

What Jessica didn’t understand is that setting her social networking site to private wasn’t enough to protect her identity when ‘private mode’ still shows her photo, name, URL, city, state, and when she last logged in. With this much information, stealing her identity isn’t hard, cyberbullying is one click away, customizing a scam to match her interests is easy, and so is showing up on her doorstep. To make this so-called private page be private she should chelsie have changed her profile picture to something less identifiable, taken her city (at least) out of her profile, used a nickname instead of her real name, and made her URL anonymous.

Example 2) Chelsea assumed that because her social networking site was set to private, invitations to parties she sent would also be private. This wasn’t correct and she was shocked when several people that she didn’t know RSVP’d. She was also upset to discover she’d just posted her address publicly.

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Identity theft is a big issue for teens

Lots of teens get tripped up because they figure they don’t have enough money in their bank account to matter – if someone really wants to steal their $54.13, they would go for it. But this is the wrong way to look at it. It’s not what you have in your account that interests a criminal, it’s how far they can put you in debt.

A criminal is not likely to steal anything from your bank account because it would tip you off. What they’re interested in is getting a $40k loan using your identity. Because you are not likely to be checking your credit history it can be years before you discover that your credit rating is ruined and you owe money; and it’s really hard to fix this years later.

Your money isn’t the only part of your reputation malicious or criminal people may be interested in. Your reputation and photos are other elements of your identity that can be stolen, and trying restore these may be even more difficult than restoring your credit. Learn how to avoid being a victim of Identity theft.

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Getting and giving friends respect online

You know what’s okay to say about your friends in the physical world, but there are some differences you need to consider when talking to others or about others online. 

The first thing to consider is who will see your words online. In face-to-face conversations you see who you’re talking to and modify your comments to fit the situation. Over the phone you know who’s on the call. Online you may or may not know who will see what you say. If someone else’s site or your site is locked down to just friends you both know, you can use the same considerations as you would face-to-face or over the phone. If you don’t know who else may see the interaction you have to assume that anyone could see it and respect your friends’ privacy as you would expect them to respect yours. It’s rude to expose information about someone – including pictures and videos -- without their permission. The only way you’ll know what they want kept private is to ask them; and the only way for them to know what you want private is to tell them.

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Who is exposing you online?

You may be surprised to learn how much your friends expose about you and how much you may inadvertently be exposing about them. This example is taken from the public social networking site of a girl who made her profile anonymous. She didn’t give her name, used a photo of her cat, didn’t provide her age or city,  and only mentioned her state. But three comments by friends completely exposed her.

3 people Her name is Blanche O’connelly, her birth date is July 16th, and she turned 16 in 2006. Had you looked at the time you would know where her party was going to be held, where she lives, where she goes to school (her state combined with the school’s team name gives it away), where to find her at the game, and how to identify her (she’ll be with her friend and you know what her friend looks like). A friend has also provided her telephone number.

In addition, all of these friends have photos of Blanche on their sites – you know who Blanche is because under the photos it lists who is in the pictures.

That’s a lot of information to expose about someone who went to great lengths to remain private. There are two problems here: though Blanche did a lot to protect her privacy, she didn’t tell her friends that her privacy was important to her and Blanche’s friends were disrespectful by posting identifiable information about her without first learning her privacy boundaries.

Another problem occurs when a bunch of friends have private sites and share lots of information, then one friend decides to make her site public without first asking her friends what information she should remove (and then removing it) to respect their privacy.

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penInformation is permanent

Many teens, are very casual with giving out personal information online because they fail to fully understand the ramifications of doing so. You will rarely feel any immediate negative consequences for giving out information. Much of the time you may never understand that there is a connection between something we, a friend, or family member posted and a subsequent consequence.

Think of each piece of information as a drop of water. When a drop of water lands, it is either absorbed, evaporates, or becomes part of a body of water and is indistinguishable from any other drop. But this is not the case with online information.

Today each drop of information is collected into personal virtual buckets. The information rarely disappears; rather, it accumulates, slowly building a comprehensive picture of your identities and lives. Small details about your appearance, where you live, go to school and work, financial status, emotional vulnerabilities, and the lives of those close to us all add up.

Comments, actions, or images once posted online may stay long after you delete the material from your site or request a friend to delete your information from their site. You won’t know who else has downloaded what you wrote or what search engine crawled and stored a photo. You can’t know who else sees your comments and judges you by them, nor will you have the opportunity in most cases to explain.

If you want to shed an earlier image and move in new directions, your previous postings may make it difficult. Perhaps an old relationship that you do not want to be associated with any longer remains online for anybody to see. You may have had embarrassing moments documented that won’t go away.

Anyone – those with good intentions as well as those with intent to do harm – can dip into your virtual bucket and search for your information years from now. It may be the admissions director at a graduate school to a potential employer, or your future children or in-laws. Or it could be an identity thief or any other kind of predator, or anyone in your life who wants to lash out at you, can cause harm.

What seemed like a good idea at the time may come back to bite you in a variety of ways.

So think before you post. It is far easier to think twice and refrain from posting than it is to try to take it back.

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