Protecting Your Online Identity

The widely-publicized hoax against Notre Dame athlete Manti Te'o has prompted reminders that users' Internet presence is vulnerable.

There are privacy laws covering what videos you rent and what books you check out from the library, but there is currently no general privacy law that protects all of us, and while social media allows people to connect in new ways, it also allows people to deceive in new ways.

USC law professor Jack Lerner said in the wake of the bizarre, complicated hoax involving college football player Manti Te’o in which a man portrayed the athlete’s often-cited online girlfriend, this lack of online privacy laws may be changing as privacy becomes more of a concern.

When Diana O’Meara became the face of the fake girlfriend allegedly created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo to lure former Te’o into a relationship, her rights were violated. She may not have been able to stop her pictures from being taken but there are laws to deal with alleged theft after the fact.

“There are anti-stalking statutes. There are also criminal statutes that prohibit impersonation here in California and that prohibit identity theft and she can also bring lawsuits, civil lawsuits,” Lerner said.

There are fines and even jail time for inappropriately stealing another person’s name or image but Lerner admits, “This type of thing is really common in practice. It’s not that common that it goes to court.”

And other challenges exist; as companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter continue to limit what is deemed private.

“There is a fair chance that we should see some changes in the law on the state level and on the federal level,” Lerner said.


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How to protect yourself online was the topic at a forum on Thursday in Boyle Heights. Members of the National Cyber Security Alliance and AT&T discussed how industry and governments are working together to create more regulations online.

“We think that people should safeguard any data that they have. That’s a security piece of privacy and if we do that together we can build trust on the internet,” said Michael Kaiser, with the National Cyber Security Alliance.

While there is no exact way of knowing how your pictures are being used, keeping on top of your privacy settings is imperative. And Lerner suggests next time you post or tweet or blog, ask yourself if it’s something you want the world to know. Even if you think you are deleting a page or an image online, it may not be gone.

“The rule of thumb really should be that if you put something up on the web you lose some kind of control over it. You almost have to assume it will stay out there forever,” Lerner said.

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