One of the creepiest things about the adolescent cyberstalking case that came to a close yesterday in King County Superior Court is how two of Leslie Cote's friends were able to pose as the Issaquah sixth-grader and post sexual come-ons--including invitations for oral sex--from Cote's own Facebook account. Were the 11- and 12-year-old betrayers crack hackers? Nope. No nefarious computer skills were necessary.
Now, the lesson here might be: Don't let your kids use their friends' computers. But that's simply unrealistic in an age where browsing the Web is a communal exercise. So we called the University of Washington's Security and Privacy Research Lab to ask whether kids--or, for that matter, adults--can protect themselves in such situation.
"The first rule of thumb is that privacy is hard to get right," says Dan Grossman, a professor in the lab, which is part of UW's computer engineering department. "Don't do anything online you don't want people to see." That said, here are his tips for keeping your passwords to yourself when using somebody else's computer.
1. When the computer's browser asks if you want it to remember your password, say no. Sounds obvious, but Grossman notes that many people aren't really paying attention and just click yes, eager to get the page they want. Click the little "x" instead. On your own computer, you may want to store a bunch of passwords for convenience' sake. Grossman does. Still, you should have a password browser on your computer that lets you review what passwords you're saving (not the actual passwords but the sites they're used for). Delete any that are particularly sensitive.
2. Turn on the Web browser's "privacy" mode. "This isn't so well-known," Grossman says, but most browsers have such a feature. As soon as you turn it on, the browser will stop recording both passwords and the sites you're visiting. Grossman shows SW how to get to this function on Firefox and it's pretty quick, so even a 12-year-old dying to officially Friend her latest BFF should be able to do it. On SW's version of Firefox, you simply hit the Tools menu on top and you'll see an option for "Start Private Browsing." A chart showing what this feature is called on other browsers can be found on Wikipedia. Grossman sheepishly notes that Wikipedia refers to the nickname of this feature: "porn mode." Obviously, some people use it to hide their own nefarious doings, rather than to protect themselves from what others might do to them. Don't be put off.
3.Logoff. As Grossman points out, this is different from simply clicking the "x' at the stop of your screen or on the tab containing the web page you've been looking at. If you do that, it's possible that someone could come along 10 minutes later and reopen the page, accessing your account. Instead, you want to go to the specific option on Facebook, or wherever, that says logout. (You'll find it under the "account" tab on Facebook.) This tells the computer you're done, and a password is necessary the next time anyone logs in.