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Digital Hygiene website aims to make the Internet a little less scary

Munk School project offers advice on online risks

“It's like the Wild West online” (photo by Enko Koceku)

“You’re less incognito than you think.”

That’s the blunt message that greets visitors to the recently created Hygiene in the Digital Public Square website, a joint project of U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs and online security specialists eQualit.ie.

“Malicious apps, theft, spam, cyber stalking, censorship, surveillance. There are no foolproof answers to risk online,” the website continues. “But there is advice to help.”

Hygiene in the Digital Public Square was created to give that advice. It offers guidelines on email, social networks, computers, data, identity and location, phones and more. For example, if a user clicks on “Access to the web” they see a brief introduction to security issues with websites and then can choose between three specific scenarios – connecting to a website anonymously, figuring out why a website is unreachable, or connecting to a website securely. Choosing one of the options brings up advice on how to achieve the goal and links to online tools that might help.

Sean Willett, creative director for the project, is one of the founders of the site. He spoke to U of T News about Hygiene in the Digital Public Square recently.

The Hygiene site is an offshoot of the Munk School’s Digital Public Square project, which is designed to increase digital communications access for people who face repression in countries worldwide. Is the Hygiene site just for people in authoritarian countries?

The Hygiene site is for everyone. Yes, it’s helpful for people under authoritarian regimes, but the Internet in general is sensitive digital space, and there are many actors in that space who can be malicious. It runs the gamut from an authoritarian government that’s punishing bloggers worldwide for writing what they want to write, to ISIS targeting internet cafes in Raqqa, to hackers who might be out for a bit of fun or something more malicious.

It’s like the Wild West online. There’s such a gap between what you’re experiencing on a computer and what’s actually happening to you. People don’t realize how much they’re being tracked. Even when you move in between websites – from Google to Facebook to your favourite news site, ad trackers in the background are monitoring you and your identity. With three points of data on a Google Map – where you go to work, where you shop, and your home – Google knows enough about you to identify you as unique. It knows what you’re shopping for; can guess your rough level of income; and a lot more. Some days you might be okay with that, some days you may not be. This site helps on may-not-be days.

How did you develop the site?

I approached the founder of eQualit.ie, Dmitri Vitaliev, saying I’d love to build something that’s natural language for users connecting to our websites. Something that offers no-nonsense answers about what it really means to have “great digital hygiene” online. He said what he’d love to do is develop a process that takes people through an interview, a “Q and A” process. That was just right. The design, the development, user experience was managed by Munk’s Digital Public Square team, and eQualit.ie mapped the question and answer framework.

Can you give an example of how people might use the site?

Ever worried about deleting a file permanently? You must have at some point. An email, or maybe a picture, that you’re really embarrassed about. So you delete it – but when you delete a file, you never really delete it off the computer. To really get rid of something so no one can recover it is a process that involves a few smart steps. That’s an example of the kind of thing this site explains how to do.

When you land on our site, we assume that the user may or may not know where they want to start to become a bit safer online. Hopefully, the process helps them uncover information not only about the thing that they’re looking for, but also the kinds of tools and how-to’s that they need in order to be cleaner, protect their identity, stop getting viruses or avoid surveillance in dangerous environments. This way beginners and advanced users are able to find something useful in the project.

Does the Hygiene site itself protect users’ identities?

It’s an anonymous process on the site. We do our best to automatically scrub any information that could identify a visiting user. I can’t say it enough – most people do not realize how identifiable they are when just browsing the web regularly.

When you land on our page you can immediately sift through the questions that interest, and importantly, tell us if it was useful without revealing your identity. And we hope users do. Each answer gives them a chance to say, “I think it was really helpful” or “it wasn’t helpful” – with the support of crowdsourcing, we can make this project better.