By April Buxton
The physical limitations placed on us since early 2020 have contributed to an explosion in the use of technology. Isolated from friends, family and colleagues, and with shops and workplaces closed, we are turning to technology more than ever. An Ofcom study revealed that in 2020, our average internet usage increased to four hours per day (rising to over five hours for 18- to 24-year-olds) and our video-call usage doubled. A third of adults now spend more time viewing video-sharing services than watching broadcast television.
Many of our activities are now carried out online, including work, shopping, entertainment, staying in touch and socialising. As a result, our digital footprints are growing more than ever. Our online activity leaves a trail of information, bringing new risks to our security, privacy and even our reputations. By sharing so much of our lives, we may be putting ourselves at risk – the information and data we share and post can empower hostile actors. Here are a few online activities to be cautious of:
The social media surge
Engagement with social media accounts for a large proportion of our time online, and has increased alongside the recent overall surge in internet usage. It was reported by Ofcom that, in April of last year, three billion individuals used Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, while 12.9 million users visited video-streaming app TikTok, and 13 million used video-chat app Zoom - totalling a rise of almost 2,000 per cent.
With this seismic shift in social media usage, our digital footprints have grown. And with a larger social presence, we are collectively becoming more complacent about the information we post online and the privacy of our data. As a result, we are exposing ourselves to the risk of our data being taken advantage of. We must ensure we are aware of who can see our posts, where the data is held, and the risks of sharing opinions and details about our lives and activities on online social platforms. ‘Closed’ networks might not be as closed as we think, and what we post now could be used against us in the future.
The hidden threats of our lockdown workouts
Another trend fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdowns is an increase in the popularity of fitness apps, which we’re now using in our millions to formulate and track our fitness regimes. The BBC reported that the popular fitness app Strava received an average of two million sign-ups per month throughout 2020, and now boasts around 73 million users. There are also a host of popular alternatives offering similar technology to map and monitor exercise routes, including MapMyRun and Runkeeper.
We at Digitalis have witnessed first-hand the exposure that fitness apps can risk for clients concerned about digital privacy, and the lack of awareness of these risks. Many users do not realise that their profile is accessible to others and fail to change it to a private setting. Many also share their ‘run maps’ via social media, without thinking about the risk this can pose. This information is often of acute interest to a hostile third-party, enabling them to identify the precise location of a targeted individual’s most common fitness routes, the times they tend to exercise, and possibly even their home address (given this is likely the starting point for tracked activity). It has never been more important to carefully manage our digital privacy settings.
The rapid growth of novel digital platforms
At the start of the pandemic, a host of digital platforms quickly became household names. Existing collaboration platforms including Teams, Zoom and Slack saw their usage surge by up to 400%. Alongside this growth in the use of established platforms, new names emerged – such as Gab and others. We will hear a lot about such platforms this year.
As new (and sometimes untested, unreliable and potentially unsafe) platforms become commonplace and gain millions of users in a short space of time, there is a temptation to jump on the bandwagon and join up – but this can leave us vulnerable. Adopting novel, less-established digital platforms presents risks in terms of our personal profiles (navigating unfamiliar privacy settings), and at times in terms of our core data, depending on the underlying cyber security of the platform itself. This may include risks of cyber-attacks and hacking, which can not only damage an individual’s reputation, but may lead to the loss of confidential information, including bank details.
When a platform is ‘free’, we often pay the hidden price of agreeing to pass on or share our data. Rapid growth of a novel platform can lead to rushed updates and expansions, often at the cost of adequate testing and leaving a risk to security. Before we sign up to a new app, we need to ensure we are confident in its underlying security. And once we sign up, it’s important to check our profile and data sharing settings to ensure we are only agreeing to share information we intend to.
Increased reliance on social media ‘news’
Half of all UK adults now use social media to keep up with the latest news, with 13% turning to Instagram, 16% to Twitter and a staggering 35% to Facebook, as reported by Ofcom. Much of the social media content that presents itself as news contains either misinformation, or even disinformation, which is information manipulated to such a degree that it becomes completely false, serving only a hostile actor who aims to create polarisation and uncertainty. An example of this was witnessed just last year, when a 5G infrastructure was attacked by angry mobs in the British countryside as a result of a conspiracy theory spread from social media ‘news’. It’s no wonder we are suffering from a fake news pandemic and an increasingly polarised society – and the problem has been exacerbated by our increased reliance on social media ‘news’ since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are clearly risks from trusting news sources you come across on social media, given its damaging effects on society. The reliance on social media ‘news’ remains deeply concerning, particularly given Ofcom’s research which reports that an astounding 37% of people who use social media for news believe it is impartial. To minimise our individual risk of being duped by false news on social media, we should ensure it comes from a reliable source, and think twice before believing or sharing anything that we cannot be sure is completely accurate and trustworthy.
Social media, fitness apps, novel digital platforms and socially-shared news can all provide benefits if used carefully – their rapid increase in use is testament to that. But in a time where reduced movement and increased isolation are leading us to turn to technology more and more, we must use them with care. It may be tempting to show how regularly you run and where, but is sharing this information worth the risk of a potential burglar knowing your patterns of movement and where you live? Are your social media posts going to stand the test of time, or could they come back to haunt you if taken out of context? Are the stories you read on social media verifiable by an authoritative news source, with editorial standards? Do you feel safe on an untested platform that has quickly risen to prominence?
To gain the benefits while minimising the risks, we must control what we share, check the facts in what we read, manage our privacy settings carefully, and ensure we are using trustworthy apps and platforms. Maintaining awareness of how much information we are sharing, and ensuring we are in control of that information, is critical.