5 Easy Ways to Protect Yourself Online
‘Netizens’ filmmaker Cynthia Lowen shares her best tips for online safety
Filmmaker Cynthia Lowen has followed up her 2011 film Bully with a documentary focused on a similar topic: online harassment. Netizens follows three women who have been targeted online through revenge porn and other means of abuse and harassment. We spoke with her about what propelled her to tackle this subject, and she shared some universal tips we can all follow to protect ourselves and our information online.
Katie Couric: Your previous project was all about bullying, and now you’re addressing online harassment. Why did you feel this was an important issue to illuminate?
Cynthia Lowen: Coming out of the experience of making Bully, I felt like the messages that were being sent around digital abuse, online violence and threats were really similar. This is something that a lot of us saw in our online communities — and yet the attitude was, “Yeah the internet is the Wild West, and abuse is the price of admission. If you don’t like it, then you should just log off.”
The internet has become such an integral part of our lives — in terms of education, travel, dating, sharing our families, expressing ourselves, getting a job, all those things —so that notion seemed unacceptable to me. The depth of this is so much more than something mean someone said to you in a tweet. It’s attacks that are intended to silence, shame, threaten and undermine someone’s potential to have a career and their economic stability.
Your work not only highlights major issues like revenge porn, but also the ways online harassment hits people in forms that they might not expect. Can you tell us about some of the unexpected ways people online are targeted?
Something I realized in the experience of making this film is that it can happen to literally anyone. We’ve seen so many cases where high-profile people in media or journalists are targeted because they’re prominent individuals. But revenge porn and non-consensual image exploitation is something that so many women are being threatened with. And it’s something with it can happen to you at any age.
I spoke to women who were in their teens when they were affected, and I also spoke to women who were in their 50s when they were affected. It’s something that doesn’t discriminate in terms of age.
It also seems like every industry now has a public review factor now. Often, people will use those sites to destroy someone’s business or career. It can be very hard to get damaging reviews down, because the response from the platform is just to pull your business off it all together. These platforms have such a profound impact on our ability to make money, succeed, have relationships and all these kinds of things.
You’ve stressed the importance of protecting yourself online, but one issue is that many people who use the internet aren’t as fluent in high-tech concepts like VPNs or encrypted messaging. Can you share with us some easy and accessible tips for staying safe online?
Here are some easy tips:
- The first thing that I really encourage people to do is to Google themselves. People say, “I keep applying to all these jobs, I keep applying to these schools,” and they don’t know why they get to a certain level — and then the lead goes quiet. Often, it may be that there’s something damaging that’s coming up about you in your Google search results. Knowing what’s out there is the first important step to dealing with it.
- When you google yourself, also put in your address — because you will be shocked to discover how much private data is available from these “people finder” databases. They publish where you live, your phone number, the names and ages of your family members, and your age. They list your neighbor’s name. They list what you pay for your house. It’s a true stockpile of information that can be utilized or abused by people who are intending to target you. If you’re on these people finder databases — which most of us — write to them and get them removed.
- Use strong passwords. There’s a lot of free password generators that will also serve as a database. I use one called KeePass. These password databases create really strong passwords for you, so you don’t need to worry, “Did I use my mom’s name or dog’s name in the last one? How do I switch it up?” They will generate the password and then they will create a secure database.
- Something else that many platforms now offer, and that I encourage people to take advantage of it, is two-factor or multi-factor identification. That’s a really great way to protect yourself. If, for instance, someone has gotten ahold of your gmail password and they’re trying to log in to a computer that’s not yours to hack into your email, you’ll get a text message saying here’s your password, your time limit and code. You’ll know that, A) someone’s trying to get into your email, and B) you can then go on and change your password.
- When you download an app, it will generally ask if its allowed to use your location data. I personally only allow apps to use my location data when I’m using that app — and that is really important. On your phone, if there’s a little arrow when you’re not using an app — near the battery sign — it means something is collecting your information and your location. If you see that when it shouldn’t be on, you need to go through “Settings” on your phone and see which apps are broadcasting your location data… and turn them off when you don’t want them to be on.
If someone is targeted by harassment or a scammer, what can they do to report the person?
One group that is doing really really great advocacy and support work is the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. They have a helpline that is 24 hours a day, available to people who are particularly being targeted from revenge porn. If you call them, they have a list of attorneys and others in different states who you can reach out for support.
Another thing that I highly suggest you do, if you feel comfortable, is call law enforcement and say you specifically want to speak to an officer in their cybercrime division. Or you would like to speak to someone who is fluent in cybercrime. That’s really important. Something else that’s really key is to make sure that you gather all the evidence. Gather all the things that look like it might be harassing or scamming. Paste it into your clipboard. Make sure you have all of the things as they come in.
if you’re being targeted on a certain platform, make a report on that platform. Often it will take a lot of perseverance, and unfortunately — for so many of the women I filmed with — it took a really long time to get law enforcement to pay attention. It also took a really long time to get the attention of the platforms where they’re being targeted. So gathering as much data and proof that you can is a really great way to present that to them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.