Today’s technology provides those with ill intentions the ability to collect private information with only a few movements of their fingertips.

Within seconds, personal emails, bank accounts, credit card information, and home addresses can become the possession of data thieves. Today, law-abiding citizens need to be digital security guards armed with the software and safeguards capable of putting a digital fortress around sensitive information.

Several Virginia Tech faculty members have conducted research on information privacy matters for quite some time, and Virginia Tech is taking a lead on providing informed perspectives into personal digital privacy by hosting an information privacy panel discussion at 2 p.m. April 27 in Commonwealth Ballroom B at Squires Student Center. A link to the livestream will be available on the Virginia Tech homepage.

“Information privacy cuts across disciplines and increasingly impacts our lives and the society in which we live and work,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. “With researchers across the university exploring a diverse array of digital privacy concerns and solutions, Virginia Tech is well positioned to be a leading voice in this important conversation.”

The event, open to students, faculty, and staff, will be co-hosted by Sands and France Bélanger,  University Distinguished Professor in the Pamplin College of Business who has been researching digital privacy for more than two decades. Last year, Bélanger co-launched an outreach program called “Voices of Privacy” to educate society about information privacy issues and solutions.

“Privacy is really a major issue these days,” Bélanger said. “It's been in existence for a long time, but the digital world and technologies move faster than we do.

“Many people say, ‘There’s nothing I can do’ or ‘I have nothing to hide.’ The reality is it's the long-term implications that we need to understand about digital privacy. It’s not about hiding all information. It's about making choices of what is known out there to others and what others can do with this information.”

The event will examine the importance of privacy measures, includes an overview of how easy it is to collect information based on two students who agree to have their online activity searched, and features a faculty discussion on the privacy marketplace, social media privacy, and popular technologies used by students. This portion of the event will be led by Megan Duncan, assistant professor in the School of Communications; Wenjing Lou, W.C. English Endowed Professor of computer sciences; and Donna Wertalik, professor of practice in marketing and director of marketing strategy and analytics in the Pamplin College of Business.

The purpose of the event is essentially two-fold: it puts Virginia Tech’s expertise and research regarding information privacy on display and it educates the audience on realities, risks, safeguards, and the outlook for the future.

“Most people do not really have a clear picture of all that is being collected, and the settings and solutions they can use to protect their information privacy,” Bélanger said. “Hopefully this will encourage them to look at their settings, look at what they share and how they share it, and just start making even more informed decisions about what they decide to do. And it's not just students. Society in general needs to understand the choices they have in what they reveal to whom.

“Is Alexa [virtual assistant technology owned by Amazon] listening? Yes. Is TikTok collecting information? Yes. Is Google collecting information? Yes. The questions we need to think about are what information is collected and what is it used for? And what can you do about it?”

One thing the panel will not be advocating is a complete discontinuing of social media or other digital platforms by people as a means of protection. Instead, the panel wants to educate and offer proven security solutions.

“I'm not saying you should stop everything,” Bélanger said. “We can't stop using Google. Most people can't stop interacting on social media. I'm on LinkedIn. It's a choice. Personally, I was part of a breach [of LinkedIn in 2021], and many times I would prefer not to have any information out there. But it's the society we live in, so we have to balance it all.”

Written by Jimmy Robertson