Browsing and searching

On the surface browsing and searching are fairly straightforward.  You open a search engine (such as Google, MSN, AOL, Ask, or Yahoo!) and you type in a search word or phrase.  You click a link contained in one of the results that appear to go to a Web site.  You can use browsers to look up information on weather to know what to wear, follow politics, research financial decisions, and so on.

However, despite the obvious benefits that search tools provide, there are some safety and ethical considerations that every person browsing online must consider.

Before browsing, learn about the data retention and data resell policies of the search engine you are using. If the policies don’t match your comfort level for safety and privacy, consider a different search company.

Ads on search engines and sponsored search results

Major search engines may still offer some of the more blatantly disreputable banner advertising.  Clicking these may put you at risk by downloading spyware, adware, or other malware, or asking for private information that will be resold to spammers, telemarketers, snail-mail marketers, and the like.

However, there are other ways in which advertising on search engines or Web sites can place you at risk.  The most concerning of these are sponsored ad links.  Most users believe that sponsored ads have somehow been vouchsafed for by the hosting company – whether by a search engine company or a Web site owner.  This is incorrect.  Sponsored ads are placed by companies that have paid the search engine to get top placement.  According to McAfee, clicking on sponsored advertising is more likely to deliver malware to your computer than clicking on other links.

Choosing certain search terms, especially those search terms that many teens may be inclined to use, can also place you at risk.  For searches that included the word ‘free’, 14 percent of the results led to disreputable or fraudulent sites, according to a McAfee study.  The problems people encounter range from hidden fees; misleading billing practices; charges for software that would be free from other sources; changes to your Windows registry settings; the delivery of spyware, adware, and so on; and misuse of your e-mail information to send hundreds of spam e-mails to unsuspecting users who think the e-mail is coming from you.

The illusion of anonymity when browsing

The level of information any site learns about you when you browse (even if you don’t ‘log in’ to a browser) may be considerably more than you realize.  As you surf, sites learn more and more about you - your likes/dislikes, your habits, and your purchasing history.  Even when a site does not download malware of any kind it still can collect a great deal of information that can be resold or used in other ways.  The safest choice is to only go to reputable sites with clear privacy policies.

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Download theft and plagiarism

Copying material to claim it as your original work is plagiarism. Plagiarism in term papers, reports, or business presentations is a serious problem. The Internet makes it easy to plagiarize; you don't even have to retype the information, just copy and paste it. Discuss plagiarism with your children and don't practice it yourself: it is illegal.

Consider whether content on a website is copyrighted.  Legitimate sites have rights to the material or services it offers for download.  File sharing programs that allow users to illegally download music and videos are still being commonly used in spite of some much publicized arrests.  Young people (and many adults) don’t seem to realize that stealing online is the same as stealing from the video or music store in your town.

Note: File sharing programs are also notorious for infecting machines with spyware,viruses, and other forms of malware.  Be very cautious if you download programs from these sites!

Music and video download theft represent only one part of the problem.  Two other aspects to consider are whether you have the right to copy anyone else’s material for any reason without their permission – including their thoughts in text, their photos and art in online images, and so on.  You may be committing deliberate plagiarism.

What constitutes online plagiarism depends on several factors.  First you have to assess the type of site: is it an educational site, government site, commercial site, or a personal site?  Government information is free to use, but commercial or personal content is not.

If the information on the site represents the thoughts and creative output of an individual you are not free to copy it.  If the site is commercial, review their terms to see whether it offers some material that is free and some that has restrictions.

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Identifying secure/trusted Web sites

You are much safer online if you deal only with sites you trust.

There are several things you can look for to help you identify trusted Web sites.

Check before you click.  Use a tool that lets you know before you click a Web site if it is likely to download malware or spam.  Such tools place a rating next to sites returned in a search to indicate how safe they are to visit.

Look for the site’s privacy policy.  These should answer your questions about how they treat personal information, how your information will be used, whether third parties will have access to your information, assurances about the accuracy of the information on their Web site, their level of security, and so on.  If you can’t easily find the site’s privacy policy GO ELSEWHERE.

Visit our Spending and Saving Online page for more about identifying safe sites when shopping online.

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Understand the risks in sharing information

Sharing personal information with the wrong people is one of your biggest risks online.  Be sure you are comfortable with how this information will be handled BEFORE you provide it:

  1. Address and phone number
    Risks include:
    Making the user a target for home break-ins as well as providing a stronger persona in identity theft cases.
  2. Names of husband/wife, father, and mother (including mother’s maiden name)
    Risks include: Gaining access to even more confidential information as this data is often used for password or "secret question" answers, but also exposes additional family members to ID theft, fraud, and personal harm.
  3. Information about your car including license plate numbers, VIN (vehicle identification number), registration information, make, model, and title number of car, insurance carrier, coverage limits, loan information, and driver’s license number.
    Risks include: Car theft , insurance fraud, and access to more of your confidential information.
  4. Information about work history and credit status
    Risks include:
    Building a stronger fake persona and gaining more access to your financial records; ID theft.
  5. Social Security Numbers
    Risks include:
    ID theft, fraud, and access to additional information about you.

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Browser settings and filtering software

Your browser should help you monitor your browsing experience, but you have to make certain settings to get the level of monitoring you prefer.  For example, in Internet Explorer you can click Tools, Internet Options to set security and privacy preferences.  Browser settings provide a small measure of content filtering.  To comprehensively filter content so you don’t see unwanted materials or sites, you may want to purchase filtering software. This helps you set boundaries for the types of sites, text, and images you and your family are exposed to.

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