I often get questions concerning online safety. They can be broad, along the lines 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 harms one’s health.
While Wi-Fi and online media are unrelated at the fundamental level, they are intertwined in our daily lives. Wi-Fi might have everything to do with how many of us behave as a species.
So, I’ll try to address this complicated relationship in this post and offer some tips on being safe — or sane — when applicable.
This post might seem a bit long, but I’d recommend that you check it out in its entirety — 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 first published this post on June 5, 2020, and have periodically updated it since to add more information and make it easier to digest.
It’s YOUR fault!
Right off the bat, let me break it to you if something happens to you in the cyber world, chances are it’s your fault. You read it right! You do that to yourself, ask for it, or even worse, 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 this: that also means you can avoid it and stay safe, with a bit of understanding of how things work and some control over yourself.
Let’s break it down.
Nothing is real: That’s just how technology is
The first and foremost thing to remember is on the Internet, nothing is real. Literally, what you see is never what you get. It’s called cyberspace or the virtual world for a reason.
At the fundamental level, everything you see on the screen is not what it is. (The screen is only what it is when turned off.)
Take this page you’re reading, for example. It’s not persistent unless you choose to print it out on a piece of paper. (Please take my word for it, we’ve cut down enough trees!)
At the current state, the page looks different if you view it on another computer or browser or at other times. No file (like a Microsoft Word file) holds this entire web page.
The text, images, and other elements lie separately inside a database. As you request the page, the system pulls stuff out and fills the screen in real time for your eyes.
In other words, when nobody is viewing this article, this page does not exist. It’s there because somebody asks for it — and right now, that somebody is you.
The technology is cool, and it works well most of the time. But it’s not entirely error-free — it might go haywire. That’s why sometimes you run into an error when surfing a website.
The point here is that what you’re looking at right now is literally not real and touchable. It’s just stored information being processed in particular ways to meet certain user requests. And the process itself might have unexpected errors — things might not appear as intended.
And 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 just the representation of what you think it is.
The content is definitely not (100%) real: It’s a human thing
But let’s forget 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. I’ll be the first to admit that the information posted here can be wrong.
No matter the effort I want to be as truthful and honest as can be, my idea of being truthful and honest is limited by my 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 better tech decisions or influence you the right way. And I mean it.
But the thing is, the site needs to make money to sustain itself. And for that, it has 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 for monetization or influence. Or both.
Money, popularity, and the boring fact
And money and popularity complicate everything.
That’s because, 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 pure evil, but that’s a different story.) We’re generally somewhere in between by various degrees.
So, some websites are more factual than others. I’d say mine belongs to the factual team — or so I try –, 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. That’s not to mention ideas are complex, and there’s always information lost or distorted during the exchange process.
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, when 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. They must choose between spicing things up to get the word out or reporting pure facts and risk being ignored.
And that’s the second thing you’d want to keep in mind when being online. Information has various degrees of nuance.
Why the Internet is a dangerous place
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 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.
Let’s get this fact straight: Everything online is about making money off of you, either by a little or a lot. And all that implies. You’d fool yourself if you believed otherwise.
In a way, 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. They are designed to make you pay, in time or money, or sacrifice your happiness for nothing or little in return. Or they brainwash you.
The tech-based tricks
This is when a party benefits itself by manipulating technology to dupe its audience into doing more or different things than intended. Let’s look at an example.
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.
Suppose you click on the “Download Acrobat Reader” button, which is exactly what most would do immediately because it’s deliberately programmed to be inviting. You’ll end up inadvertently installing three more things on 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.
Sure, there are “Terms & conditions” that you can read, but they are purposely designed for folks to overlook — they are there only to cover Acrobat’s legal bases.
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 your explicit consent.
Nobody knows what the software does in the background, but I can tell you that it wants to take your money — it displays pop-up nags constantly. By the way, 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.
Still, this shenanigan 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 intentions — the Internet is a minefield.
And it gets a lot worse in the next part (before we get to the part where I explain the one thing you can do to be safe.)
If baiting your click is bad, the emotion-based 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 lie to ourselves all the time on this front.
- We often search for things online to prove we’re right and validate our beliefs. In other words, we think we’re “educating” ourselves while actually reinforcing our ignorance.
And the content providers know all of 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.
There are educational benefits in the cyber world, but only if we approach it open-mindedly.
Search engine manipulation and confirmation bias
Whenever 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 search 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 and convert it into cash.
That is 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 suddenly see ads about cars everywhere after searching for “EVs.”
So here’s an interesting question: What if, for some reason, many folks search for something that doesn’t exist? Well, that’s when you’ll find fake content. That’s how conspiracy theories come to life and thrive.
Your act of Googling is often the very reason something comes into existence. Somebody will meet your demand if you’re willing to give away your attention.
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 BS on the Internet, BS will be served on a platter with zero limits in quantity.
Be careful what you wish for. It will come true specifically for you in the cyber world.
Oversharing, fake social accounts, ulterior motives
This is where it’s entirely your (our) fault.
Nobody forces us to share anything online, but folks couldn’t help keeping their X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, or other social media platforms cluttered with what they (want to) believe to be true.
When did you last check to ensure something is (close to) 100 percent correct before you shared it?
And here’s an even more consequential question: ask yourself why you share something, especially when it’s not your content. That’s because, often, the act is a cheap and easy way to make you feel good about yourself. Social media companies manipulate similar parties to give you likes and comments — you feel validated, accepted, and even exalted. And you crave that.
In other words, we don’t “share”. We’re just addicted to attention. And the platform we use maximizes that attention exchange by inducing interaction to get the most cash out of it.
Some influencers are also in on the game of making money from followers’ attention. They feed their followers with whatever information with the most monetary return. It’s like taking care of a pig farm, but much easier with faster return.
And then, millions of fake accounts (bots) can work together to sway opinions one way or another via the so-called “trends” by faking interactions or sharing. Have you ever asked yourself if the account you’re interacting with belongs to the person you think they are or even a real human being? Technically, you can never know for sure — as mentioned above, everything you see on the screen is fake.
The algorithm is designed to maximize engagement. Social media puts us into an echo chamber that amplifies our version of the Internet-derived world, which, as mentioned above, is not real.
Being part of a social network means you might subject yourself to manipulations by those with certain ulterior motives. But even if you don’t, for the most part, social media are like the communal dumping grounds or burning pits of human emotional trash.
So, depending on your online time, your “real” world might no longer be as factual as you believe.
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. So, 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 generally help, though many software applications actually do more harm than good — they focus more on making money than protecting users.
No protection software offers any type of guarantee — if you still get infected, the vendor will pay you for the damage — and that’s something to keep in mind. The only thing guaranteed is the cost that you have to pay upfront.
Use some form of protection
For example, if you use Windows, the built-in Windows Security app, which is free, is excellent. So, use it.
On top of that, consider getting a router with built-in protection that can prevent bad things from coming into your home network.
Here are a few examples of router-based online protection:
- The free Network Protection feature in all Asus, Ubiquiti, or Synology routers.
- The HomeShield feature (free and via subscription levels) in TP-Link routers.
- The Armor protection in most Netgear routers.
I’ve tried them all, and they worked as intended, though the paid options are generally overrated.
But remember that no software or equipment can keep you safe from yourself. You’re always the last line of defense. That brings us to the one thing that will protect you against online threats.
How to stay safe online: Don’t be that click-happy user!
That’s right. Not clicking mindlessly is, by far, the most effective way to stay safe.
Clicking (or tapping) willy-nilly on a screen will get you into big trouble. It takes less than a second to click, and the consequences can take hours or even days to repair, if possible.
Let me explain.
We give the computer a command with every click (or tap on a touchscreen), and it performs an action. Most of the time, we think we know what will happen because a link or button 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’s presented to you. And the guys behind that count on the fact that you will click!
Here’s the key: Don’t give them that!
So, the bottom line is: Treat your mouse click 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 else don’t do it!
I can almost promise you will stay safe if you follow that simple rule. 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 vice versa. Most importantly, keep in mind that life is never black or white.
Take everything you see online with a grain of salt, and don’t just look for what you want. Everything can be right or wrong in a certain context.
In short, think critically, no matter what your values are.
How to stay safe: Things to watch out for
Here’s a list of online things you should be wary of. They are the ones that:
- stokes strong emotions like fear, anger, anxiety, or disgust.
- makes you feel good about yourself — when we do, we overlook facts.
- are outrageous, hard to believe, or full of superlatives. Generally, life is hardly extreme — it’s somewhere in between.
Good practices to stay safe online
Remember that a skilled person can edit photos, videos, and audio to distort, change, or nudge the facts.
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. (I use Factcheck.org and Snopes.com.) Note: Just because a website has the word fact in its name doesn’t mean it is a fact-checking site.
- Verify the information by checking with the source when possible.
- Check the uncut direct speech or original documents.
And finally, remember that the fact is independent of what you want, how 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. All that is not easy, but there’s no rush or obligation to share anything you find online. In fact, I’d recommend only sharing what you create yourself.
Why bother if everything is not real anyway?
That’s because you are real, and so are your actions.
The money you spend, the time you waste, the products you bring home, the fights you have with your loved ones and close friends, your votes, your health, life, and death… they are all real.
Knowing what you’re getting into is important. 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?
Nobody knows for sure because everything can be “bad”.
As mentioned, everything in life is nuanced. So, you’ll continue to have this question if you’re looking for an absolute answer. And as long as you’re still searching, you’ll keep encountering content created to capture your attention that says one way or another. You’ll get nowhere.
But one thing is clear: We wouldn’t have been here if the radio frequencies were really bad for us. That’s because Wi-Fi-like phenomena are not human-exclusive.
Wi-Fi signals are a type of wave, part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is mostly invisible and covers virtually everything we can see and hear, plus what we can’t. In the chart created by NASA below, Wi-Fi lies at the level around Microwave and TV Remote Controls.
So, if Wi-Fi — as well as other forms of man-made radio-based wireless communication like 5G, 4G, or walkie-talkie — could truly cause cancer, affect reproductive health, or were just 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, despite plenty of wars, we have since almost quadrupled in number.
Among those, I proudly contributed to the population by playing a small part in making a few little humans 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. Do wear sunscreen, though — skin cancers are also real.
But turning off your router occasionally is probably also a good idea — among other things, that gives you a break from the crazy cyber world mentioned above.
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 using it to get online could get you into social, psychological, and even financial problems, some of which you might not know until it’s too late.
So, spend your time in cyberspace responsibly. At the very least, keep your clicking and tapping in check. That’s the key to how to stay safe in the virtual world. And once in a while, give yourself a break and go offline.
Our attention has value. Give it to the parties that deserve it. Conducting your life while being misinformed or manipulated is arguably worse than having cancer. Compared to those, having an infected computer is merely a little thing. But it’s best to be free of them all.
Stay safe, and, most importantly, please stay alive! This website needs your views and your clicks.