Embark on a cybersecurity journey with France Bélanger and Donna Wertalik, tech-savvy professors and Voices of Privacy podcast hosts from Virginia Tech University. In this comprehensive guide, they unravel the mysteries of digital privacy, offering insights and strategies to fortify your online defenses.

Discover the nuances of managing privacy settings across social media, messaging apps, web browsers, and devices. France and Donna delve into platform-specific settings, shedding light on controlling what information you share, securing chat privacy, and fortifying your digital footprint.

Learn the significance of strong passwords, two-factor authentication, and the role of VPNs in safeguarding your online activities. They equip you to navigate potential data breaches, empowering you to monitor your online presence and take swift action if compromise is suspected.

Join them in arming yourself with the knowledge and tools necessary to protect your digital sovereignty—whether you’re a seasoned tech enthusiast or just starting your digital journey. Explore this must-watch guide, reinforcing your digital castle against potential threats in the vast online landscape.

Manage Your Cookies

In Europe, they’ve really championed privacy as a human right, setting up laws like GDPR to safeguard personal information. It’s all about giving people control—like those pop-ups asking to accept or manage cookies on websites. But here’s the kicker: while it’s meant to empower us, sometimes in a rush, we end up just hitting “accept all” without really understanding what we’re agreeing to. So, while the intention is to keep us in the driver’s seat of our privacy, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s like they’ve given us this control, but we might not fully grasp how to use it wisely. 

France Bélanger provides listeners with a helpful breakdown: cookies are these tiny text files stored on your computer, making browsing faster by remembering your preferences or information. They’re like the secret sauce behind website efficiency. In the past, people were excited about the internet’s fast-paced communication without realizing the consequences of being tracked. However, Donna Wertalik emphasizes the need to manage these tracking mechanisms.

So why should we “manage cookies” instead of “accept all”? Donna shares the alarming speed at which personal information travels online. She explains the concept of “track the trackers” and highlights how kids innocently navigating sites like Disney or Nickelodeon end up being targeted by numerous other sites. The discussion touches on how students are now becoming more aware and cautious about cookie settings, choosing functional cookies over ad-targeting ones.

She elaborates on the impact of GDPR on businesses, forcing them to revamp privacy procedures while consumers, especially younger generations, might not yet grasp the extent of online tracking. Donna paints a vivid analogy: imagine each online click as a step in the physical world, and for every step, someone’s closely following you. It’s like being surrounded by a crowd in the physical realm. The lack of concern among younger folks about online tracking emphasizes the disparity between our reactions in the physical world versus the digital realm.

Blurred Lines

Young folks have grown up in a digital world where boundaries aren’t clearly set. Parents and children often share a similar attachment to their devices, making the online realm feel like a natural extension of their lives. Donna stresses the need for education, suggesting that schools should cover not just traditional topics like “the birds and the bees” but also discuss online tracking issues to raise awareness among children and parents.

The current mindset leans towards showcasing the best version of oneself online, focusing more on aesthetics and popularity than privacy. France adds that the real issue lies in underestimating the implications of sharing personal information. She emphasizes how seemingly insignificant pieces of data, when combined, can create a detailed profile of an individual, and these profiles remain in the digital space, often beyond our perception of deletion. 

Their platform, Voices of Privacy, aims to tackle this lack of understanding.

Common misconceptions, such as clearing caches or cookies to protect privacy, are ineffective in erasing traces completely. In addition, there is vulnerability in using common cues in passwords, Donna and France urge people to consider more secure alternatives when setting passwords. They warn us about interconnected platforms, explaining how using Facebook to log into other services means Facebook can track your activity across those platforms, even after claiming to be “off-Facebook.” This led to recent guidelines updates to ensure better transparency in tracking practices.

Voices of Privacy

Voices of Privacy is all about educating folks on online platforms—how we’re being tracked, and most importantly, how we can take charge of our online presence. So, it’s not about ditching social media but being savvy about what we share and knowing that we’re the bosses of our own info!

France shares that they’ve organized webisodes that inform and educate about privacy in an approachable tone. They offer step-by-step how-to videos demonstrating settings across various devices, interviews exploring unique privacy topics like COVID contact tracing barriers and privacy in the entertainment industry, and upcoming discussions on smart car privacy.

Donna emphasizes the platform’s consumer-friendly approach, ensuring content readability for everyone, avoiding complex jargon. She stresses the need to simplify these concepts, acknowledging that terms like “algorithms” or “cookies” might not be common knowledge. Their aim is to expand this outreach, possibly integrating privacy education into school programs, targeting various age groups to instill a deeper understanding of privacy from an early age.

France adds the importance of starting privacy education early, highlighting the significance of ensuring kids grasp the concept’s long-term implications, implying the need for age-appropriate language and engagement to effectively educate them about online privacy’s importance.

How is Our Information Used?

Where does our information end up when we log in using platforms like Facebook or Twitter? Donna explains that companies view us as the product they’re selling to other businesses. Brands seek specific groups based on preferences, likes, and influence, a billion-dollar industry targeting consumers in clusters. France adds that tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple collect our data for various purposes—from improving their products to predicting consumer behaviors. They’ve been using algorithms to analyze our activities, crafting suggestions and recommendations based on our online behavior.

France emphasizes the power of algorithms, which essentially process our data to draw conclusions about our preferences, behaviors, and even political inclinations. The critical question they pose is whether individuals are comfortable with this level of information being known about them. They advocate for awareness and informed decision-making regarding what users choose to share online, highlighting the significance of understanding the extent and implications of our digital footprint.

Take Control

Our digital footprint is out there, and many wonder if there’s anything we can do about the information already online. Donna shares that it’s a bit of a paradox—we all want to be social but not have every detail of our lives online. She emphasizes that education is key, highlighting the importance of understanding why platforms collect our information. 

It’s not all bad, though. Donna points out the positive side of tracking, mentioning that some tailored content based on our interests can be valuable. However, she warns about the unwanted tracking that leads to irrelevant profiles and spam.

We do have control over these settings, though. The future of online interaction leans towards personalization, and Donna encourages taking charge by exploring and adjusting settings, making conscious choices about what content we want to see. She underlines the significance of value in marketing and how having control over our settings empowers us to curate our online experiences. It’s not about giving up but about actively managing and making choices within the online landscape.

To inspire younger generations to care more about their online privacy, Donna suggests a shift in approach—focusing on empowering them through education about managing settings for better content curation. She emphasizes the idea that controlling settings isn’t just about avoiding being tracked but about receiving content that aligns with their interests, creating an experience similar to a personalized TikTok “For You” page.

Having control over what we see online can create a scenario in which everything delivered is tailored to our preferences, eliminating unwanted spam. Taking charge of settings empowers individuals to change their online experience for the better, making it more relevant and enjoyable. This reframing aims to show the positive side of managing online settings, turning it into a tool for a more personalized and empowering online presence.

Assessing Convenience Versus Disclosure

During the discussion, Christina brings up the concerns about devices like Alexa seemingly listening in on private conversations and then showing related ads on platforms like Facebook. Donna explains that while these smart devices aren’t constantly streaming or eavesdropping, they do collect snippets of audio to enhance user experience. She emphasizes how various smart devices, including Alexa, combine data like audio, video, and surroundings to build detailed profiles for personalized recommendations, highlighting the reality behind the stories of devices like Roomba recording unexpected moments.

Donna warns against the default acceptance of settings and the tendency to overlook what data these devices collect. She highlights the importance of taking control by examining privacy settings across all smart devices, suggesting that starting with understanding and managing these settings is crucial. France adds that educating oneself about privacy settings is key, urging viewers and listeners to assess what level of convenience they truly need versus what they’re willing to disclose. Both stress the significance of exploring privacy settings as a first step toward regaining control over personal information shared through smart devices.

Privacy Settings on Social Media

Virtually everything—from phones to social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, or Instagram—has settings that can be adjusted for privacy. For instance, users can set their profiles to private, controlling who can see their content or connect with them. Donna recommends exploring settings on these platforms, suggesting that even clicking on the three dots on an ad allows users to understand why they’re seeing it and remove undesired content.

Christina further inquires about Instagram’s privacy settings and whether they affect who sees her posts. Donna clarifies that setting an account to private means users must request to follow and tagging others is restricted. She highlights the difference between private and public accounts, noting that while public profiles are more open, private settings offer more control over who views personal content. Check out Voices of Privacy for Instagram’s privacy settings in-depth with information on navigating these options effectively.

What’s Next for These Two?

In the closing moments, Christina asks Donna and France about their greatest accomplishments since turning 50. Donna highlights her appearance on the Today Show, discussing virtual influencers—an achievement she cherishes at her age. France shares several accomplishments, including maintaining an active lifestyle, launching Voices of Privacy, hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, learning tennis, and transitioning professionally.

With a focus on future visions, Donna envisions herself giving back, continuing her fulfilling and vibrant life, remaining open to new experiences, while France looks forward to the excitement of the unknown, staying active, and embracing whatever the future holds.