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NSA, PRISM and Internet Privacy: 4 mistakes students make online

students studying in the library

In the last few days, news of the PRISM programme and the National Security Agency tapping into private data stored by popular websites, like Facebook and Google, has created a ground swell of protest as to how much privacy we really have online.

Students ought to learn how they can remain secure online, with so much of their lives – both educational and personal – taking place on there. For international students, cultural differences in what we expect a website to look like and barriers in language can make students more susceptible to fraudulent websites and actions. Meanwhile with mobile devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops a necessity for students today, our sensitive information is no longer confined to our homes where we can ensure its security – we often carry it around with us, which makes us an easy target.

Now while we can’t control how much our government knows of our online activity, we can control how accessible our private information is to those around us. Take a look below at the four mistakes which students often make, which can make them susceptible to fraudsters or fellow students with a twisted sense of humour:


Mobile devices

With tablet and smartphone use increasing, app use has too which makes performing simple actions such as search and engaging with friends quicker and easier. No longer may we go to a website and log in like we would have at one time; instead, we are constantly logged in to accounts which can gather and tailor information constantly depending on our location. However, if your device lands in the wrong hands, so does all this information, which may include your email. Have screen locks in place which must be cleared to activate a device; this can be a four digit code or pattern that only you know, or even facial recognition software which verifies that it is you trying to access the device. You may also wish to consider security apps like Cerberus or Plan B which can track your phone or wipe all information from it, if it is lost.


Working off-campus

Students often have to take their devices onto campus if they plan on working in the library, or they are presenting in a seminar. That means carrying with you a lot of sensitive information, on a very visible piece of technology, which is attractive to thieves. It can be difficult to hide the fact that you have this equipment on you, but you can disguise this fact (e.g. avoid using a laptop bag, instead carrying a laptop in your normal bag, and refrain from taking them out in public).

Around the end of term when exams and deadlines are on the horizon, students spend a lot of time in the library (often whole days, and even nights); this means having to occasionally leave your work area to use the toilet or eat. Some believe that being a university facility with other students, they can leave their things in the library and they’ll be safe; avoid doing this as you can never account for other students passing by (especially when everyone is too focused on what they are doing to be security-conscious). Consider the following tips: take your possessions with you if you leave, even if it means finding a new workspace later; take small snacks with you so you can avoid leaving your area to get food frequently; plan your day or bathroom breaks carefully; and ask someone you trust to watch your things if you do need to take a break (a good reason to study in groups).


Social Media

Social media sites like Facebook or Twitter are excellent tools to make friends, plan events and feel connected to people on a large campus where everyone is doing something different. However because it seems that everyone is using them and they encourage us to give up information about ourselves on a daily basis, we can let our guard down about what information we share. This can include information about where we are currently or are planning on going. It is very easy for people we have never met before to now know what we look like, our name, who we socialise with and much, much more; so check your privacy settings to see who can see what you post, and be discerning when choosing to add someone as a friend/follower. Again, be wary when logged in to these networks on both your and other people’s devices, logging out when leaving them.

When on these sites, we may be prompted to click through to a separate site which is unrelated, or allow access to our data to unverified sources. Games or applications are two common examples which try to provide an incentive for you to do so. If you cannot account for the validity of this third party software, return to the original site you were on immediately, or simply close the window.



Students become accustomed to receiving a lot of different emails from their student union, the university administration and their faculty/department. In the case of societies, students tend to sign up to things they have no intention of actually following or attending (just because they get something free if they do at that moment). This means we cannot know for sure who to expect emails from. Going through these emails can be a mission too, and we might not be as wary as we ought to be when opening them. While email is often very secure, the odd bug or glitch can get through. If you have reservations about the sender of a specific email, do not open it; instead consult a friend, or the university themselves if the sender purports to be from them. Look at the header and footer for clues, though this might not always work if you don't know what you're looking for.

A general rule is to never transmit private or sensitive information via email; if you do, delete the message from your archives as a thief only has to search for terms like ‘sort code’ or ‘account number’ to quickly find these private pieces of information (these are often transmitted by students in messages to parents or letting agents/landlords when transferring funds).

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About Author

students studying in the library

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.