Netflix’s series “YOU” shines a light on online stalking

Like many others, I recently indulged in Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, “YOU”. The show is about a charming (but sinister) bookstore manager, Joe, who quickly becomes obsessed with an aspiring writer, Beck, who visits his store.

After their first encounter, Joe searches for Beck online and much to his satisfaction, he easily and quickly finds her multiple social media profiles, photos, hobbies, likes and dislikes. “Your name was a glorious place to start… And there you were. Every account set to public, you want to be seen, heard, known, of course I obliged…” Just like that, Joe’s obsession begins. From this point on, the show gets dark, really fast, and depicts some of the dangers lurking in our digital world, and how our endless connectivity can be used to stalk and manipulate.

Online stalking and manipulation

Fortunately, the prevalence of self-reported stalking in Canada is on the decline. Statistics Canada reports a decrease from 9% in 2004 to 6% in 2014, but suggests also that the use of technology is shifting the ways in which victims experience stalking. In our digital world, personal details shared online, like someone’s date of birth, favourite coffee shop, or even vacation dates can unintentionally and unknowingly make someone vulnerable to predatory risk.

What you can do about it

The disturbing and cautionary tale of Beck may leave you wanting shut down your social media accounts, bury your phone and never date again, but there are steps you can take to help protect your privacy (and yourself) online, lessening your vulnerability to online stalking and manipulation.

Take these steps to help protect your privacy (and yourself):

  1. Make your social media accounts private so you don’t give away more information than you intend. It’s also a good rule of thumb to only connect with people you’ve met face to face. If you regularly post pictures of your favourite coffee house or gym schedule, the information could be used to figure out your pattern of day to day activities and location. If you prefer to have a public account, consider limiting it to one, and be careful what you post and what can be seen in the background when you share photos.
  2. Educate yourself on IoT devices in your home. Know how these devices work, how they can be accessed and controlled and what information they share and store. Turn off smart devices when not in use – especially those with cameras or mics. Additionally, keep in mind that most smart speakers (Google Home, Alexa) store your voice command history, which can be accessed via your account. Finally, always ensure your IoT devices are properly password protected. The Internet of Things is revolutionizing the way we live our lives – we just need to stay safe while using it.
  3. Set strong passwords.We should all have passwords on our smartphones, tablets and laptops to mitigate risk in the event they are lost, or to simply prevent someone from snooping through your personal information. Your password should be at least eight characters long and include a mix of letters, numbers and special characters. The more numbers and characters you add, that harder it is to hack. Consider making your online banking password even more complex and turning on two-factor authentication. If someone accesses your online banking account, not only can they wreak havoc with your finances, they can see where you ate lunch, when you shopped and so on, down to the minute.
  4. Use features like Find my phone (iOS) or Find my device (Android). If you lose your phone, these features can help you locate your phone, but also let you remotely set a password if you haven’t done so already. You can also wipe your device remotely. In the event you lose your device and are unable to recover it, always remove the old device from your Apple ID or Gmail account and change your social media and email passwords. Otherwise, if someone found your lost device, they could turn off location settings and  see your messages over Wi-Fi  (i.e iMessages, Email, Facebook, Instagram and more)   

These tips are simply a few simple suggestions to help you protect yourself and your privacy online. If you find yourself the victim of online stalking and manipulation, or online criminal harassment of any kind, you should contact your local police.

For more tips to stay safe online, check out the TELUS Wise Tip Sheet or book a workshop by emailing wise@telus.com.