High-tech communication is never private, says expert

Richard Guerry, director of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication, is peppered with questions following his Feb. 2 presentation to parents at St. Therese Parish in Parkville. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

By Kevin Kelly

Catholic Key Associate Editor

PARKVILLE — Public. Permanent.

Richard Guerry hammered those two words repeatedly during his Feb. 2 multi-media presentation to several hundred parents and other interested community members.

Treat everything you do on a computer or a cell phone as if the whole world is watching, and it can never be erased, said Guerry, executive director of the New Jersey-based Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication.

Established as a non-profit just two years ago, Guerry has already given more than 600 seminars to schools, law enforcement agencies and military services from coast to coast.

St. Therese School Principal Carol Hess said the school’s Anti-Bullying and Education committees brought Guerry in to spread the word in separate talks for teachers, parents and students about the truth of digital technology communication.

And that truth, Guerry said, is that nothing is ever private or anonymous, and nothing can ever be deleted. Once it is on the Internet, it will remain there forever. And everything that has ever been kept on any personal computer or cell phone can be hacked and uploaded to the Internet in an instant, even if the user thinks it has been deleted.

“Digital activity is public and permanent,” Guerry said. “If you turn on every digital device with the idea that everything you will do on it will be public and permanent, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Guerry further called that idea the “Golden Rule of the 21st Century.”

And that goes for everything done on a computer, an iPad, and a cell phone, Guerry said.

In fact, he said, more and more people are finding themselves in serious legal trouble because they wrongfully thought that they were communicating with just a handful of friends.

Guerry cited the separate “sexting” cases of two teenaged boys whose underage girlfriends sent them explicit photos by cell phone. When they broke up with their girlfriends, the boys sought revenge by sending the photos to their friends.

Eventually, the photos wound up on an illegal child pornography Web site that hacked into one of the cell phones, and each boy was charged and convicted for distributing child pornography.

“That is a harsh way to learn a lesson,” Guerry said.

He also cited a case of an 18-year-old boy who confessed to his parents that he had been viewing online pornography.

“There is only one reason an 18-year-old would tell his parents that,” Guerry said. “He saw pictures of his parents.”

Guerry said the boy’s parents had taken explicit pictures of themselves and uploaded them to save on a photo-sharing Web site that they thought was private and password secure.

The operators of an illegal porn site based in Eastern Europe found the photos while “trolling” — or browsing through — the photo-sharing site and hacking into so-called “private” accounts.

“That is how they get their content,” Guerry said.

“In social media, a password is a joke. There are a million ways to get around it in an instant,” he said. “We can’t just assume that the people we want to see what we put on there will be the only ones who see it.”

Guerry also urged the St. Therese audience to think about the meanings of the words “social” and “private.”

“The two words don’t go together,” he said. “‘Social’ and ‘private’ are completely opposite,” he said. “We don’t call this ‘social media’ and ‘sharing’ for no reason. But if every time we approach a digital device, if we do it with the mindset that everything we are doing is public, we won’t have any trouble.”

Trouble in online communication isn’t limited to pornography, he said.

Guerry cited the case of a burglary ring in New Hampshire that monitored the Facebook accounts of wealthy residents. One of the residents posted innocent photographs and comments on their Facebook page, intended only for their “friends,” while they were on vacation. They returned to find their home ransacked and robbed.

“If these people had the idea that everything they were doing was public and permanent, then they (the perpetrators) would have found nothing to exploit,” he said.

Even remarks posted anonymously on Internet forums or social media Web sites can cause legal troubles for the person who writes them.

It is common for such forums and sites to devolve into digital free-for-alls where its users think that anything goes including derogatory and defamatory remarks, Guerry said.

“One of the key reasons people are being cruel online is because they have the misperception of anonymity,” he said.

But anonymous screennames (such as JohnDoe789) can be traced back to the user, even as simply as using registration information that popular social media sites require.

In a celebrated case last year, 34-year-old business consultant Carla Franklin won a court order compelling Google to reveal the identities behind three screennames of people who had posted comments about her on Google-owned YouTube that Franklin said were not only defamatory, but threatening.

Courts are consistently ruling in favor of victims and against cyberbullies, Guerry said.

“If I am going to be cruel to someone in the digital world, I might as well hand them a gun,” he said. “I am giving them the ammunition to get me.”

Guerry said that police departments are also establishing “social media units” to monitor the Internet to identify and catch criminals.

“One guy robbed a bank. Then he went on Twitter and bragged about it to his friends,” he said. The bank robber was quickly identified and captured.

Guerry stressed that he was not trying to frighten people away from using digital communication tools wisely.

“It is an amazing time to be alive,” he said. “You can talk to anyone on the planet instantly. Think of the power.

“That is the whole purpose of digital technology — instant sharing and instant information,” Guerry said.

Guerry also said that the written record modern communication technology users are leaving will last forever, even if the user has “deleted” it.

Guerry showed several online advertisements for software that will dig deep into a computer’s hard drive to restore data that had been deleted, accidentally or otherwise, no matter how long ago. That software is also in the hands of hackers who can send computer viruses through Web sites and e-mails to break into a computer and steal information such as Social Security, bank account and credit card numbers.

“They shouldn’t call it a ‘delete’ button,” he said. “They should call it a ‘hide’ button because that’s all it is doing.”

Because we are leaving such a permanent record of our online activities, future generations will know more about the people of this generation than about any previous generation in human history,

“What do we want future generations to know about us?” Guerry said.

“Whenever you turn on anything digital, picture the person you love the most looking over your shoulder.”

Public and permanent, Guerry said again.

Digital communication activity “should never be a negative. It should always be a positive,” he said.

“Every soul now alive now has the ability to touch the lives of over 1 billion (digital communication) users,” Guerry said. “Show them what a beautiful person you are.”

More information about the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication is available online at www.iroc2.org. Guerry’s book, “Public and Permanent: The Golden Rule of the 21st Century,” can also be purchased online at www.PublicandPermanent.com.



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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph