Adventures in internet safety

In an atypical public service announcement, I want to write about what’s wrong with the simplistic internet safety advice frequently given to kids by people with frankly no experience of the internet whatsoever. Specifically, I want to talk about the advice given to kids planning to meet up with people they found on the internet. The common advice is incomplete; as if written by someone with plenty of common sense but with internet experience limited only to “the Facebook”.

Although we’ve all heard the horror stories – nice young girl finds someone on the internet and meets up with them in real life before something newsworthy occurs – this kind of stuff happens really rather rarely. Considering the sheer volume of people making each other’s acquaintance in meatspace for the first time everyday, the percentage of these ventures that go wayward is low. I believe that, when used properly, the internet is a fantastic way to meet and connect with people. My perspective is primarily a positive one.

In my teenage years and beyond, I met plenty of people – both girlfriends (perhaps more on that another day) and friends – from the internet and they all turned out to be who they said they were. A combination of intuition and (more importantly) skepticism made me confident in my judgements; the rest was just good fortune. I was lucky to have those attributes but common sense as applied to a specific task can ultimately be broken down into a set of steps and emulated by anyone.

The MTV show Catfish – plumbing the depths of mildly entertaining trash TV as I undoubtedly am – is a great display of exactly the kind of innocence that gets punished. When evidence is so easy to come by, I’m not really sure whether to feel frustrated by the naivety or buoyed by the optimism of people like those on Catfish (not exactly like those on Catfish, you understand, because I’m not convinced they’re not actors).

A signed photo

One of a number of signed photos I still have around.

As someone who was raised, at least partially, by the internet, I know all too well that not everyone is who they say they are, but connecting a real face to the person you’re conversing with is trivial. Signed photos (known simply as “signs” in some circles) are photos where a person identifies themselves as who they say they are by writing something – often their own name or the recipient’s name – on a piece of paper or on themselves and holding it up to the camera1. They are reasonably hard to fake but the paranoid can easily go one step further and demand similar video evidence. Faking a convincing signed video is so far beyond the realm of possibility for the vast majority of people that it can basically be accepted as absolute proof.

Even the highest standard of evidence – a full conversation with webcams and microphones – is not much of a hoop to jump through for anyone in a truly meaningful online relationship (friendship or otherwise). You can pick up the shittest of cam/mic combos for about a tenner; an amount that surely anyone with internet access at home can afford to pay. If someone isn’t going to stump up £10 to put your mind at ease and secure the future of the relationship, why are you even communicating with them?2 A sensible adult would rightly be incredulous under these circumstances and would surely never agree to actually meet the person.

Connecting a digital identity to a face with actual eyes and ears and stuff is only a piece of the puzzle but it’s the obvious piece that everyone seems to miss. If you look at pictures of some of the guys who have been caught kidnapping girls they met online (like this handsome cunt), you realise that the kids almost certainly (and tragically, in many cases) skipped the signed photo test. I’m sure there are plenty of similar cases where some common sense education3 would’ve prevented the real life meetings happening in the first place.

Obviously there’s no substitute for meeting in a crowded public place and taking a friend with you but, for fuck’s sake, it really helps to actually ensure the person you’re meeting is who you think they are first. For any parents unfortunate enough to be reading this, the takeaway is this: signed evidence. I used to get people I was potentially going to meet in real life to go on webcam, write my name on their hand and then hold it up to the camera. I used to do this even with people I was just getting close to, regardless of whether I had any intention of meeting them. It was a high enough standard of evidence for me and obviously I would always reciprocate. If they didn’t comply, I certainly wouldn’t meet with them. Even now, as a grown male adult, I would do the same thing (mostly because I wouldn’t want to meet anyone who had lied to me about who they were). I believe that the number of horror stories would halve overnight if everyone did this.

1: I’m well aware that this is not the only function of signed photos for many people. Some people – rather oddly, I have to say – collect them; a subset even pay to get attractive people to create a signs for them. I have a collection of signs in the sense that there are dozens on my hard drive but they were all made either for proof of identity or because the person making it wanted to.

2: There are few – very few – real exceptions to these rules, although I accept that my musings are somewhat ethnocentric.

3: Hey, I’m not expecting kids to realise this stuff themselves but grown adults certainly should.

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