The 21st century began 17 years ago with the heady fear of the Y2K virus. If you are a digital native reading this article, there is a good chance you have no idea what I am talking about. It was the pathetic panic that swept across the globe, everyone worrying that all existing electronic and information systems would crash as the internal clocks would switch from 1999 to 2000 as in '000'. Whether pathetic or otherwise, the century began on the waves of the information age, transforming into a tidal tsunami that swept across the world at lightning speed, roaring forward with no end in sight.
Now 17 years on, we are still reeling from the waves of the information age. Progress isn't to be reined in this time. Technology is taking us forward, whether we want it to or not. Add to this mix, the strength, power, and reach of the social media.The mind simply boggles at the possibilities of the good, the bad and the ugly.
We are all mostly aware of the good side of the technology all around us. Some of us may also be privy to the bad side of the technology use. However, very few of us are aware of the ugly side of the use of technology. Seventeen years on, it is past the time that we got on that particular wave and became aware of some of those ugly truths and ugly faces of the uses of technology that often leave behind trails of mental, physical, emotional diseases, financial losses and even death.
The realm of online communication via computer networking, also known as the cyber space, is marred with opportunities that users can take to harm others. One such opportunity is that of identity theft on social media. When someone gains access to your personal information without your permission and uses it for their benefit, it is identity theft. This information could pertain to your finances, your professional life or even your personal life. How is that possible, you might ask? Often enough, users do not need to be proficient in technology to get their hands on these types of information. Did you know that the most frequently used passwords for email accounts, social media sites, even bank accounts are either the sequence '1-2-3-4' or birthdays? You might wonder why this is significant. Think about your birthdate. How many people know your birthdate? If you have thought up a number less than 10, you are most probably wrong. Particularly, if you have a social media account. All social media accounts ask for your birthdate when signing up. Even if you do not make that information public, your friends in their intimate desire to make you feel special, wish you online, allowing others to gauge your birthdate. Birthdates are important pieces of personal information that we often do not see any obvious harm in sharing. But birthdates are vital to opening bank accounts, accessing personal accounts, being identifiers and so on. So making birthdates public opens up users to possible identity theft attacks.
At particular risk are children and young adults due to their prolific nature of sharing personal information freely and in abundance, making it easy for predators to find the information readily.
More than half the users of social media sites who are children and young adults regularly fall prey to identity theft. Thieves not only steal information, but use the information to set up false bank accounts raking up huge bills that are then charged to the original user without their consent or knowledge; access and acquire personal accounts that lead to further crimes such as cyber bullying, even stalking or black mailing.
Users lose millions every year due to identity theft. Victims also face psychological impacts such as a feeling of victimisation, frustration, mistrust, anger, depression, anxiety - all of which may lead to permanent wounds that can become irreversible.
Identity theft on social media isn't something new. It has been there for a few years and is on the rise exponentially along with the increase in number of users on social media. In order to safeguard against such crimes as identity theft, knowledge is key. Users, particularly children, young adults and their guardians need to become aware of the importance of securing personal information, how to secure the information, how predators might get their hands on the information. Mishandling information, being careless about receipts, throwing away paper containing vital personal information, misjudging the seriousness of the crime or the likelihood of the crime occurring all lead to users becoming vulnerable and potential victims to identity theft.
It has been 17 years since we began this journey into the twenty-first century and joined millions around the world to get on the information wave. It is now time we became responsible users and protect ourselves and our loved ones from serious cyber criminals that are lurking in the dark, waiting like patient predators to strike when we are at our lowest or weakest or most vulnerable.
The writer is Assistant Professor of Ethics and Academic Integrity, University of Wollongong in Dubai.