Why Students Should Care About Online Privacy



College students should aim to better understand what online privacy means.

Tweets, Instagram shots, Facebook albums and blog posts allow us to curate an image that persists long after our college days are through. And privacy is something we cherish in our bodies, our personal relationships, financial standings and even ideals and values. Our desire for privacy is muddled, however, when we virtually publicize things from our everyday lives. What’s more, putting an image online perpetuates moments—sometimes, more so than we’d like.

But concerns about privacy aren’t just about a post that could potentially compromise a future job opportunity. Conversations about privacy also include terms like cyber warfare, surveillance and open source.

On April 7, security researchers at Google publicized another Internet security mishap. This time, it’s called Heartbleed, a “serious vulnerability” in OpenSSL, software program that is made by an open-source project and encrypts data like passwords, credit or debit information and Social Security numbers. Up to two-thirds of the Internet, according to the “New York Times,” uses this open source software. An open-source program refers to software projects that can be made by many programmers one virtual network. Ironically, the “openness” of a project like OpenSSL is meant to eliminate security glitches and other flaws as the software is written and rewritten.

According to a “New York Times” interview with Zulfikar Ramzan, technology officer at security start-up Elastica, Heartbleed allows attackers to “steal bits of information” about online transactions that were considered secure. Though this bug was disclosed nearly two weeks ago, the programming flaw was identified about two years ago. Ramzan said that the bug wasn’t fully uncovered until recently because of the vast amount of coding out there, a direct effect of the open source project.

The story doesn’t end there, however.

A recent report by the “Bloomberg Businessweek” alleges that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) not only knew about the flaw in OpenSSL, but also used it to gather so called “critical intelligence.” The Obama administration and the NSA have both denied these claims, according to a piece in “The Harvard Crimson.”

On a surface level, the case for a college student’s privacy seems small in the grand scheme of these security concerns.

But the reason why we don’t want pictures of ourselves shotgunning beers is the same reason we cringe at the ways in which our government surveys us: we want to have control over the information that pieces part of our identity. And these pieces aren’t just filtered images or emotional statuses; they’re also about the websites we frequent, the Netflix binges we undergo, the books we buy, the music we stream. Collect these pieces and there’s an entire portrait of someone—someone in real life—in a virtual landscape that is always growing and obviously vulnerable.