Paralegal With a Purpose: The Dangers to Privacy and Free Speech

By: Fiona Causer

Internet’s near ubiquity in the United States has done a lot to empower women. Used improperly, however, the freedoms afforded by the advancing online space carry the potential to be harmful. Women are particularly vulnerable because of the ways in which they use the internet. E-mail forwards, chat rooms, and online dating are only a few of the online activities statistically more popular with women. Criminals often seek to exploit female web surfers on the belief that they will be easier targets than men. This does not have to be the case. Especially given the fact that women have pretty much shaped the paralegal profession by having dominated it since it became a more mainstream vocation. Along with more outlets for educating oneself about legal issues, especially with online paralegal and other referential legal sources also near ubiquity, there are many ways for women to arm themselves with the necessary knowledge to protect their privacy rights while online.  Since true empowerment online means learning about common risks and threats of online communication, and being savvy in how the technology is used.

Controlling personal information saved and shared online is one of the most important places to start. “Sharing personal information with the wrong people is one of your biggest risks online,” the Washington State Attorney General
warns
.  “Be sure you are comfortable with how this information will be handled BEFORE you provide it.”

Understanding how privacy policies work is part of this calculation. Many women maintain robust social networking pages or blogs, both of which are usually set to be publicly accessible by default.  A woman who shares her full name, posts her address or phone number, or freely shares photos of her children with their names might be handing this information to any Google-savvy criminal. Women should think hard about how much to share in the first place, then should change the settings of any public sites to “private” or “closed.”

Internet dating, while wildly successful for many, also has privacy mines that must be navigated.  It is very important that daters keep their most sensitive personal information guarded, especially at first. Address, phone number, and last name should only be divulged once real trust has been established. Unfortunately, not all men who use online dating sites have honest intentions.

“An online love interest who asks for money is almost certainly a scam artist,” the Federal Trade Commission
notes
. “They create fake profiles to build online relationships, and eventually convince people to send money in the name of love.” The best thing to do is to simply exercise caution. If something sounds fishy—a date is traveling extensively abroad, for instance; claims to have fallen immediately in love; or suddenly needs money for a temporary emergency—communications should be cut off.  In the same vein, women should be wary of meeting someone in person whom they have only met online. It is often a good idea to bring a friend or meet in a very public place for the first date.

Women should also use caution when choosing user names and account passwords. This goes for online networks as well as other, more general websites. Almost everything requires a password, from e-mail to online banking and shopping sites. “Keeping track of all of the number, letter, and word combinations may be frustrating at times, and maybe you’ve wondered if all of the fuss is worth it,” the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team says on its
site promoting internet safety
. “Often, an attack is not specifically about your account but about using the access to your information to launch a larger attack. And while having someone gain access to your personal email might not seem like much more than an inconvenience and threat to your privacy, think of the implications of an attacker gaining access to your social security number or your medical records.”

Even something as benign as forwarding a mass e-mail of a cute photo, great recipe, or a new tip can be dangerous if the sender is not known. E-mail forwards are sometimes nothing more than efforts to amass directories of e-mail addresses. Messages from unknown senders should be deleted, and unexpected attachments should never be opened.

In most cases, online safety boils down to common sense. Women should guard their personal information online the same way they guard their purses when out shopping. By limiting who has access to personally identifying details, women can surf, chat, and share with confidence.

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