Colleges need to realize the dark side of digital media

Higher ed’s role in raising social awareness of dangerous misuses of technology
By: | Issue: March, 2018
February 13, 2018

Every day in homes and schools across the world, people get excited about what they can do with new digital devices. On social media we share pictures, humor, heartfelt thoughts, frustrations and so much more. We can now connect face-to-face across the globe at a moment’s notice.

In classrooms, passionate teachers leverage technology to create engaging new assignments and projects where students can mash up content and use tools in ways unforeseen previously.

Digital technologies have transformed our lives and our classrooms, and the potential for more empowering developments is simply awe-inspiring.

The downside

Yet at the same time bad actors of many stripes are leveraging these same technologies for harmful purposes. One of the more obvious and frequent dark uses of digital technologies is when hackers, organized crime and even foreign governments trick us into giving up passwords so they can steal our identities to sell.

You’ve probably also encountered the rapidly growing use of ransomware, in which computer files are held for ransom.

Higher education happens to be a leading target for ransomware attacks, in part because of our open approach to the sharing of information and our embrace of different cultures and peoples. These are disturbing abuses of powerful technologies that can bring so many benefits to our lives.

The abuse of these technologies isn’t limited to just those who are out to steal our identities and access our accounts. More subtle abuses of our trust, thoughts and ideals are playing out.

Political operatives have employed the services of expert organizations to influence the narrative through creative uses of social and “news” media. Meanwhile, most of us seem to be all too willing to keep exchanging our safety and privacy for the convenience that these various digital technologies provide. But the reality is that the threats are escalating at a pace that the world has never experienced before.

The rate of change in the digital realm is exponential. The sheer volume of our personal information that is stored by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and other digital super states is nothing short of disturbing. And the internet of things (IoT) is spreading like wildfire.

That webcam you watch your house with, the smart controls in vehicles, and digital assistants like Siri and Alexa all offer access points for hackers to invade privacy and take down networks. Social media is being “weaponized” before our very eyes. The list of disconcerting uses of these technologies grows daily.

But where is the discussion about these concerns in our classrooms and courses?

Should higher ed play a role in raising social awareness?

Higher education has the knowledge, and the platform, to raise awareness and host a discourse on this vital matter. It is not uncommon for schools to incorporate awareness and information about some issues into their program curricula.

Here in the U.S., there are even regulations and guidance from the federal government regarding campus safety. We accept the idea of teaching students about safety issues.

Some would argue that helping our students and our citizens become aware of important issues is a responsibility higher education must consider. And many of us seem to accept that our safety, privacy and more can be affected when digital systems that we use are compromised. So why aren’t we bringing these ideas together, and leading a richer discourse about the dangers of digital technologies?

This should be as fundamental to “digital literacy” as learning how to search for information. Our students’ well-being, and the freedom and safety of society at large, may very well depend on it.

Time to step it up, higher education. Let’s play an impactful role in encouraging the exchange of ideas and the things we need to be thoughtful about as we rush headlong down this road to a digitally driven world. 

Kelly Walsh is CIO of The College of Westchester in New York.