Monday, April 01, 2013

Use Information Responsibly, My Friend

Last weekend my daughter’s friend borrowed her new MacBook Pro to check his email. The next time she used her computer she noticed his email account was open and he was still logged in. She couldn’t resist. She sent him an email from his account claiming to be “future me” warning him not to eat the pizza in New York when he goes for Spring Break in the coming week. Later he came to church telling everyone about this freaky email message he received. She didn’t let on and let him continue to puzzle over it. Finally, someone asked if he had used anyone else’s computer. “No.” He thought, “I don’t think so…” Then it dawned on him and my daughter was in trouble. Of course, they all had a good laugh. It was a harmless prank.

However, this amusing story should also be a cautionary tale. Depending on what messages and attached files he had stored in his inbox, this could have been risky behavior. In the name of convenience, many services (i.e., Google accounts) integrate logins allowing users to be connected to many other accounts with a single sign-on. For instance, if he was a blogger, my daughter might have been able to post almost anything on his blog. Just imagine the possibilities!

As an employee of Hope International University, I have access to legally protected information including student and employee records. I can access much of this information remotely and I need to be aware of the risks I take when doing so. It has been the goal of our Information Systems (IS) department to simplify access for students, staff, and faculty to all university accounts with a single sign-on. But this does not come without security concerns.

The information security issues may not be so different in the digital world as they have been in print but our understanding of them is one of the information literacy competency standards for higher education.

“The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.”

This goes beyond plagiarism and copyrights.

When I take paper files home with me, I know not to leave them where they could get lost, ruined, or seen by unauthorized eyes – or worse, taken by malicious characters. I know not to take certain kinds of files home at all. These files have a physical location that I can hold on to. But with networks and web-based technologies I have less control and less of an understanding of the risks. If I am looking at a [paper] file in Starbucks, I think I would notice if someone were looking over my shoulder or taking a picture. If I look at a file in the cloud using Starbucks free wi-fi, someone could track my digital steps without my knowing it.

The HIU Technology Strategy Committee (which includes the Director of IS) recently proposed an information security policy to address concerns that new technological conveniences present to the institution.

The trick is to strike an appropriate balance that enables employee maximum productivity and maintains reasonable security for the University. We employees of Hope tend to be highly invested in the mission and success of the University. Timesaving technological conveniences enable us to do more with less. But at what cost?

In the digital world, we are more open, interconnected, and vulnerable. We just need to know how to practice responsible information management.


Robin Hartman is Director of Library Services at Hope International University. She is curious about how the organization and communication of information shapes society and is committed to equipping students to impact the world for Christ.

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