Greenlee School professor, broadband access expert provides Internet privacy tips

AMES, Iowa -- According to last week's release of Symantec's Norton Cybercrime Report 2011, global cybercrime costs nearly $400 billion and affects 431 million adult victims annually. The report said on top of the $114 billion in money stolen, cybercrime costs victims an additional $274 billion in time lost -- putting the total price tag for Internet-based crimes to $388 billion annually.

With so much at stake and society increasingly relying on nearly 24/7 online access, Internet privacy has become an increasingly vital commodity. And a professor in Iowa State University's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, who has been instrumental in providing greater broadband access for all Americans through President Obama's Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP), also knows how users can better protect their privacy online.

Jeff Blevins, an associate professor in the Greenlee School who studies communications law and policy, served as a federal BTOP grant reviewer. He volunteered for the job because he sees the program as vitally important to the nation's ability to communicate.

He's also volunteering to provide Internet privacy insight during a presentation to the Ames Circle K club on Thursday, Sept. 22.

According to Blevins, there is no omnibus federal Internet privacy law. Instead, regulation is only a patchwork of laws that depend upon the industry involved and the type of data being collected.

"Most disclosure of private information online is voluntary," Blevins said. "Individuals reveal all sorts of personal details about their lives through social media -- pictures, hobbies, religious and political beliefs. Work-related websites and professional networks may reveal employment history, education, as well as other details. Virtual reality tours are another potential source of information."

Blevins reports that once a web operator has a stated privacy policy, it may face legal consequences if it doesn't abide by it. This minimal form of self-regulation is the greatest restriction on a web operator's ability to collect and use customer information, he says.

"There is no legal requirement that an operator have a privacy policy," Blevins said. "Ones that do are often difficult to understand, and most often favor the operator."

For that reason, Blevins offers these Internet privacy tips to online users:
• Realize the cost/benefit anytime you provide your personal information online. "For instance, social media, such as Facebook, may allow you to connect with friends and family across the country," Blevins said. "At the same time, you are potentially giving up lots of private information about your personal life."

• Be aware of the privacy settings on all social media that you use, and check them frequently in case the operator has changed them.

• Use the "cookie" notices on your web browser. "All cookies aren't necessarily bad, especially for websites that you like to visit frequently," said Blevins. "However, you don't have to accept all cookies, especially for new sites, or those you may not trust."

• Use an email address and login ID that does not include personal information. "For instance, you may think that you are leaving an anonymous post or comment that just includes your login ID," he said. "However, if your login ID includes your last name and the year you were born, it may be easy to infer who is the author of your post."

• Beware of any site that offers you some prize for providing your personal information. "Most likely it will be used for direct marketing purposes, but it might also be used for fraudulent activity," Blevins said.

• Make a habit of reading and reviewing the privacy policies of all sites with which you do business.