How safe is the Internet?
As we discussed in our Introduction to the Internet course — and in particular, our Advantages and Disadvantages of the Internet article — the Internet is a wonderful technological innovation that has made many things that we do easier and more convenient than ever. It has also allowed us to do some things that we had never thought of before, or thought were outright impossible. However, as useful as the Internet is, the sad truth is that not everyone uses it with noble intentions.
As more of our daily activities become easier due to the speed and scope of the Internet, so too do crime and other immoral activities become easier as an unfortunate consequence. Some people spread misinformation on the Internet, hoping to embarrass people or lure them into traps. Other people actively try to get around Internet security systems and steal private information. And still others create programs to deliberately mess up people's computers and email clients, just for the fun of ruining someone else's day.
This is why it's important for people to take safety precautions when using the Internet in order to keep their information secure and well-being intact. These precautions include using anti-virus software, coming up with strong passwords for your Internet accounts, and knowing when (and when not) to give out personal information over the Internet. Again, it's not that the Internet is a dangerous place; it generally isn't. But there are certain troublemakers who use the Internet's capabilities to take advantage of others, and it's important to know how to protect yourself so that you don't end up as one of their victims.
Why is Internet safety important?
The unfortunate reality is that there are many people who have bad things happen to them over the Internet because they don't take online safety seriously enough. There are three major reasons why people think that they're safer than they are on the Internet. We'll explain each of these mindsets, and highlight their underlying flaws.
Misconception #1 — Cyber attacks aren't very harmful
Some people tend to think that the things they do on the Internet have few, if any, real-world consequences. At the very least, nobody can physically reach through a computer monitor from the Internet and assault them.
Why it's wrong: With how deeply digital technology is interwoven into everyday life now, there are many instances where online activity can have a big impact on your real-world functionality. For instance, what if someone got a hold of your banking or I.D., and pretended to be you while on the Internet? They could buy things for themselves using your money, and put you into serious debt. Or, they could do something embarrassing or illegal that, if seen by certain people, could get you fired from your job or arrested. And online bullying and harassment can be as psychologically damaging as when it's done in real life (or perhaps even more so), given how many platforms a victim can be attacked on (email, social media accounts, personal websites, online chat rooms or boards, etc.) and how many other people could potentially join the attack.
Misconception #2 — Other people will keep me safe on the Internet
This is a common assumption among people who don't understand how Internet safety works, or why it's important. They assume that their computer, other people's websites, or even the entire Internet or World Wide Web are designed to keep them safe and secure while using the Internet.
Why it's wrong: While it's true that many computers and websites have built-in safety features to protect your information, the reality is that they only go so far in keeping you safe. There are numerous points on the Internet that are NOT covered by the security measures of a website or your computer. These places are where cyber-criminals are counting on people to get careless and either give out personal information or download a malicious program.
Misconception #3 — I'm not important enough to be a target
Many people think that cyber attacks won't happen to them because they don't have anything important enough to destroy or steal. They think that cyber-criminals will only go after corporations, celebrities, or politicians and governments, since they have the most money or the most important information.
Why it's wrong: Just like pickpockets and other petty thieves in real life, there are some cyber-criminals who avoid high-profile targets in favour of multiple ones that are less well-guarded. In fact, the Internet's ability to quickly spread information (or misinformation) over a wide area may make this a more attractive option. Think of it this way: it is much easier for a cyber-criminal to use the Internet's speed and reach to steal $20 from 50,000 people who don't think they're important enough to steal from than to try to steal $1,000,000 from a person or company that has strong security measures in place because they know that they will likely be a target for theft.
To reiterate, we're not pointing these bad assumptions out to frighten you or slap you on the wrist if you have them. We're simply trying to explain that these assumptions get made because people aren't aware of the precautions that they can take to keep themselves safe while using the Internet. Once you start taking some of these precautions, you'll be able to replace these kinds of assumptions with the knowledge that you're actively working to prevent yourself from becoming the victim of a cyber attack. And that will let you use the Internet with confidence!