I’ve been receiving a lot of questions concerning online safety. They can be broad questions — those along the line of “how to protect my computer from online threats” or “how to stay safe in this age of misinformation.”
And then, some wonder if Wi-Fi itself is harmful to one’s health.
While Wi-Fi — the thing I geek out about on this website — and online media are kind of unrelated, they are not entirely so in our daily life. In fact, they can have everything to do with how many of us behave, as a species.
I’ll try to address this complicated relationship in this post.
Please take note: This might seem a long post, but you want to run through it all — I can almost promise that it’ll be a fun read. Also, I’ll be blunt from here on out. Try not to take things personally.
Dong’s note: I’m not a scientist, nor am I a radiologist or a shrink. What is expressed here is my personal opinion/experience. By the way, I first published this post on June 5, 2020, and have updated it since to make it easier to digest, among other things.
It’s your fault!
Right off the bat, let me break it to you that if something happens to you in the cyberworld, chances are it’s your fault. That’s right! You do that to yourself, you ask for it, or even worse, you actively look for it.
Let that sink in. Give yourself a few minutes to deny. Feel offended if that suits you. Or call me names.
OK, that’s the bad news. The good news is: That also means you actually can avoid it and really stay safe online. You only need to understand how things work. Or how things are, for that matter.
Nothing is real: That’s just how technology is
The first and foremost thing to remember is, on the Internet, nothing is real — as in what you see is never what you get. It’s called cyberspace or the virtual world for a reason.
At the very fundamental level, everything you see on the screen is not what it is.
Take this page you’re reading, for example. It’s not persistent unless you choose to print it out on a piece of paper.
At the current state, the page looks different if you view it on another computer, browser, or at different times. At the very least, you’ll see different ads. (That is if you have chosen to allow them. Thanks!)
In fact, there’s no file (like a Word file) that holds this web page. The text, images, and other elements lie separately inside a database. As you request the page, the system pulls stuff out and forms the screen in real-time to feast your eyes on. In other words, when nobody is viewing this article, this page does NOT exist.
The technology is really cool, and it works well most of the time. But it’s not completely error-free — it might go haywire. That’s the reason sometimes you run into an error when surfing a website.
The point here is that what you’re looking at right now is not real. It’s just stored information being manipulated in a certain way to meet certain user requests. That’s the first thing you’d want to keep in mind when being online.
Again, at the fundamental, most honest level, what you see on the screen is not what you think it is.
The content is definitely not (100%) real: It’s a human thing
But let’s forget about how the technology works and assume that this web page is real because you can see it.
In the next level, where humanity uses tech to deal with one another, the information you’re consuming is also not real — as in it’s not necessarily factual.
Again, take this page, for example. It’s not 100% factual. I know that because I wrote it.
That’s right. I’ll be the first to admit that the information posted here can be wrong. Much that I want to be as truthful and honest as can be, my idea of being truthful and honest is limited by my own understanding of the world, and most importantly, my agenda.
So what’s Dong’s agenda?
I’d say that I made this website with a noble mission to help folks make sound tech decisions or influence you the right way. And that’s no bullshit. I actually mean it.
But the thing is, the site needs to make money to sustain itself (and hopefully me, too). And for that, it needs to display ads to an audience. The bigger, more engaged the audience, the better.
So here’s the thing: Most of what you see online is there for monetization or popularity. Or both.
Money, popularity, and the boring fact
And money and popularity complicate everything. Because, just like in the real world, being good and noble doesn’t necessarily make you famous or rich. At least not as easily or as fast as you’d like. You might need to use tactics. Others want shortcuts.
Of course, we’re talking about nuances here. Nobody is purely good or evil. (OK, some might be, but that’s a different story.) We’re generally somewhere in between by different degrees.
So, some websites are more factual than others. I’d say mine belongs to the former, but you need to make that determination for yourself. One thing is true: Not everything you see online is factual all the time. And even when it is, it’s not 100 percent so.
The more a publisher cares about the popularity of a piece of content, the more likely they need to spice (or change) it up, making it less (or not) factual. Even when they want to report the fact, the sad truth is they need to deviate from it a bit to be successful.
(Unless, of course, if you write about Wi-Fi, which has little room for romanticizing.)
That’s because you, the audience, want to be entertained! And the facts are generally boring. So, from a publisher’s point of view, it’s a matter of priority. And that’s the second thing you’d want to keep in mind when being online.
Why the Internet is a dangerous place
And here’s another sad truth: Most online content providers prioritize money over fact. If you work for a big company, you’ll notice that. During meetings, the main topic is always about how to make (more) money.
I worked for a big news corporation for almost two decades, where my professional goals were always more views and clicks (plus other secondary things.)
So, again, let’s get this fact straight: Everything online is about making money off of you, one way or another, by a little or a lot. And all that implies. You’d fool yourself to think otherwise.
A website works similarly to a cable modem. It converts your attention into cash. And that’s a fair game since we all need to give something to get something.
The problem arises when a party cheats by taking advantage of how the technology works, the audience’s naivety, or both.
I’d call this practice tech- and emotion-based shenanigans. In other words, they make you pay a lot in money, time, or happiness for nothing or little in return. Or they make a fool out of you.
The tech-based tricks
This is when a party benefits itself by manipulating the technology to dupe their audience into doing more or different things than they intend to.
Below is the screenshot of the page where you can download and install the free Acrobat Reader, one of the most popular applications for viewing PDF files.
If you click on the “Download Acrobat Reader” button, which is exactly what most would do immediately because it’s highlighted and inviting, you’ll end up inadvertently installing three more things to your computer.
That’s because Adobe, the maker of Acrobat Reader, likely has a deal with McAfee to trick folks into installing the “security” software (what an irony!) onto their computer unknowingly. Sure, there are “disclosure texts” that you can read, but they are purposely designed for folks to overlook.
A side note: Once Acrobat Reader is installed, MacAfee will have embedded its software at multiple places and set it to automatically run each time the computer starts, without you ever knowingly agreeing to that.
Nobody knows what exactly the software does in the background, but I can tell you for sure that it wants to take your money. And on a side note, follow the life of the software’s founder and you can determine how much you can trust this “security” software.
So yes, almost all the free apps you download from the Internet include some unwanted extras.
Mind you, this kind of trick is rather benign. Many others can be a lot more egregiously malicious. Some even cause you to install malware or ransomware on your computer. There’s no limit to bad intention, and the Internet itself is a minefield.
And it gets a lot worse in the next part.
(In case you’re all wound up and worried by now, there’s a section below where I’ll run you through how to avoid online tricks and stay safe.)
This kind of online trap is much harder to deal with. It plays with our human psyche. To understand how it works, we need to be aware of a couple of things about ourselves.
- We generally want to be accepted, admired, or validated.
- It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong, and we don’t want to be wrong in the first place.
- We search for things online and many times to prove that we’re right, to validate what already believe. Tech makes that so convenient.
And the content providers know all those. How? Well, for one, they are human, too. Also, they understand how search engines work. And, again, their goal is to make money from your attention.
Search engine manipulation
Every time you type in a search term (a.k.a keyword), the search engine collects it to form a search volume database. That determines how many people are searching for the same thing(s) online.
Based on that, the interested parties can create compelling ads and relevant content. It’s a simple matter of demand and supply. The goal is to harvest the most attention to, well, convert into cash.
That is the reason why when there’s a big event, like the release of a new iPhone, you’ll see a ton of content on the subject. Or, you’ll notice how you’ll suddenly see ads about cars everywhere after searching for “Honda Odyssey.”
So here’s an interesting question: What if, for some reason, a lot of folks search for something that doesn’t exist? Well, that’s when you’ll find fake content. That’s how conspiracy theories of all kinds come to life and thrive, anyway.
Many times your act of Googling is the very reason something comes into existence. As long as you’re willing to give away your attention, somebody will meet your demand.
Here’s a fact: There’s no keyword that returns nothing. Type in even the weirdest search term, and you’ll find something on the InterWeb. Try it!
To put it bluntly, if you order bullshit, bullshit will be served on a plater. Be careful what you wish for.
This is where it’s entirely your (our) fault. Nobody forces you to share anything online, but folks couldn’t help keeping their Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or myriad other line social media platforms cluttered with what they (want to) believe to be true.
Ask yourself, when did you last check to make sure something is (close to) 100 percent correct before you shared it?
That’s not to mention there are many super-sharers, or influencers, with thousands or even millions of followers who have agendas or ulterior motives. They can single-handedly start a conspiracy theory if they wish to do so.
In many ways, social media put us into an echo chamber that amplifies our own version of the Internet-derived world, which, as mentioned above, is not real, to begin with.
So, depending on how much time you spend online, over time, your “real” world might not be as factual as you believe. For the most part, social media is like the communal dumping ground or burning pits of human emotional trash.
The more views a piece of content has, the more profit the owner or related parties make. And here’s the sad truth: In cyberspace, large viewership and not much else is the key to the richness and great influence.
Specifically, a website can publish misleading or outright wrong information and still make money as long as people consume it. And the more folks do that, the more “legit” the site becomes. We believe in popularity.
Even if a website needs to recant a story, chances are it will not have to return the money it has already made out of it. In other words, getting more views is always more immediately rewarding than delivering genuinely honest and factual content.
And that’s all thanks to you. You want to be entertained or see things that jibe with your “world.” We tend only to see what we want to see.
How to stay safe online
Now that we’ve been on the same page about how dangerous the Internet is, let me explain what I’d do to stay safe.
How to stay safe from malware and technology-tricks
This category is fairly easy to deal with. Traditional protection software and hardware help.
Use some form of protection
For example, if you use Windows 10, the built-in Windows Security app, which is free, is excellent. Use it. (If you use a Mac, there are some free tools for it, too, or you can also put Windows 10 on it.)
On top of that, considering getting a router with built-in protection that can reduce, if not stop, bad things from coming into your home network.
Here are a few examples of router-based online protection:
- Network Protection that’s included for free in all Asus routers.
- The Antivirus feature that’s available for free in some TP-Link routers.
- Armor protection, available as a subscription in most Netgear routers.
I’ve tried them all, and they worked as intended.
But keep in mind that no software or equipment can keep you safe from yourself. To stay safe, remember that you’re the last line of defense. That brings us to the one thing that sure will protect you against online threats.
How to stay safe online: Don’t be that click-happy user!
That’s right. This is, by far, the most effective way to stay safe.
Clicking (or tapping) mindlessly on a screen will get you into big trouble. It literally takes less than a second to click, and the consequences can take hours or even days to repair, if even possible at all.
With every click (or tap on the touchscreen), we command that the computer or computer(s) will do something. Most of the time, we think we know what will happen because a link or a button generally behaves consistently. The majority of the time, we’re right! And that’s the problem. We become complacent.
Sometimes, as I explained above, things are not what they seem — a button or a link can be programmed to do more, or differently, from what that’s presented to you. And the guy behind that counts on the fact that you’re gonna click!
Here’s the key: Don’t give them that!
So, the bottom line is: Treat your mouse click (or screen tap) the way you do the trigger on a loaded AK47. Once you hit it, there’s no undoing it.
The next time, before you click to affirm an action — like “OK,” “Continue,” “Yes,” and so on — make sure you know beforehand what your target is. Or don’t do it!
If you follow that simple rule, I can almost promise you that you’re going to stay safe. OK, I promise you that.
How to stay safe against fake content and misinformation on the web
This part is much harder because it’s personal. The key here is to get over yourself!
The first thing is to keep an open mind. Don’t go online to validate what you already believe or want to believe. In fact, search for the opposite to see what those with different opinions say.
It’s a good idea to question yourself sometimes. Instead of trying to prove what you want is right, try proving that it’s wrong, and vise versa. Most importantly, keep in mind that life is never black or white.
Take everything you see online with a grain of salt, and when you’re online, don’t just look for what you want. Learn the context. Everything can be right or wrong in a certain context.
How to stay safe: Things to watch out for
Here’s the list of things you should be careful of when you run into online. Those that:
- Stoke strong emotions, like fear, anger, anxiety, or disgust.
- Make you feel good about yourself — when we do, we tend to overlook facts.
- Are outrageous, hard to believe, or full of superlatives. Generally, again, life is not black or white — it’s somewhere in between. So, extreme stuff hardly exists.
Good practices to stay safe online
Remember that a skilled person can edit photos, videos, and audio to distort, change, or nudge the fact one way or another.
Sometimes, even the most reputable websites can get things wrong or intentionally publish lousy content out of greed or ulterior motives.
That said, make sure you:
- Fact-check the information. Personally, I use Factcheck.org and Snopes.com. Note: Just because a website has the word fact in its name doesn’t mean it actually a fact-checking site.
- Verify the information by checking with the source when possible.
- Check the uncut direct speech or original documents.
And finally, keep in mind that the fact is independent of what you want, the way you feel, or how popular a piece of content is.
Don’t share the content just because you agree with it. Make sure it contains (mostly) factual information first. That sure is not easy, but there’s no rush or obligation to share anything you find online, either.
Why bother if everything is not real anyway?
That’s because your actions are real.
The money you spend, the time you might waste, the products you bring home, the vaccine you take or don’t take, the fights you have with your loved ones and close friends, and, most consequentially, your vote.
All of those are real. So you must do them knowing what the hell you’re getting into. Real actions matter.
Oh, your Wi-Fi router is also real. And that brings us to the following endearing and less contentious question.
Is Wi-Fi (or any form of wireless communication for that matter) bad for health?
Well, nobody knows for sure.
But one thing is clear: If the radio frequencies were really bad for us, we wouldn’t have been here. That’s because Wi-Fi-like phenomenons are not human-exclusive.
Wi-Fi signals are a type of wave, as part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is mostly invisible and covers virtually everything we can see and hear.
In the chart created by NASA below, Wi-Fi lies at the same level as Microwave.
So if Wi-Fi — as well as other forms of radio-based wireless communication like 5G, 4G, or walkie talkie — could truly cause cancer, affect reproductive health, or were seriously bad for health in any way, the human race would have suffered a great deal since the first microwave oven arrived in 1946.
Instead, we have almost quadrupled in number since, despite plenty of wars.
Among those, I proudly contributed a small part in making a few in the past couple of years. And mind you, considering my line of work — I started tinkering with routers in early 2000 — it’s safe to say I had been more exposed to Wi-Fi than most.
So, when I say Wi-Fi signals are no more harmful than sunlight, rain, or wind, I speak from experience. The bottom line is you can stop worrying about it.
But turning off your router once in a while is probably a good idea — among other things, that gives you a break from the crazy cyber world mentioned above.
Wi-Fi conspiracy theories
Since Wi-Fi radio frequencies’ health effect is inconclusive, there is a lot of misinformation on this front. Crazy stuff like they could spread viruses over a long distance or physically embed information in your head.
Rest assured: All those are totally false. They are just impossible.
Consequently, devices designed to keep your Wi-Fi signals “clean” and “safe” (by blocking 5G or EMF signals and so on), or anything along those lines, are all scams by different degrees. Don’t waste your time or money on them.
There you go. Before you click one of those share buttons below — you know you want to! — here’s the recap:
Wi-Fi is probably not bad for health. But the use of it could get you in all kinds of social, psychological, and even financial problems, some of which you might not know until it’s too late.
So, use it with care. At the very least, keep your clicking in check. That’s the key to how to stay safe in the cyberworld. And once in a while, give yourself a break and go offline.
Our attention has value. Pay it to the parties that deserve it. That’s true in the real world and cyberspace as well. Conducting your life while being misinformed or manipulated is arguably worse than having cancer, let alone an infected computer.
And it’s best to be free of them all. Stay safe, everyone!