Self-defense with the fox: what we did on the “Fit and Safe” Germany tour

by Alice Fleischmann

Self-defense with the fox: what we did on the “Fit and Safe” Germany tour

by Alice Fleischmann

It’s Mozilla’s declared mission to educate Internet users and provide them with practical advice for their everyday online life (and beyond). According to the fifth out of the 14 Mozilla Manifesto principles “individuals must have the ability to shape the internet and their own experiences on it”. However, it requires some knowledge and tools to be able to make conscious decisions and actively participate in shaping the web. This is exactly why the German Mozilla team picked up the ‘Firefox Self-Defense’ concept, originally developed by Amira Dhalla, this year to bring it as the event series ‘Fit and Save on the web – and Offline’ to users in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Munich.

“A while ago, someone hacked into my Facebook account and used my profile to like all kinds of weird pages. That was pretty embarrassing and it only came to my attention because my friends asked me about that odd behaviour – weeks later.” Many stories and questions we hear from the Fit and Safe participants in all 4 cities touch on social media. They want to learn how to secure their online accounts and, if necessary, how to claim them back if they’ve been hijacked. Almost all participants also know tracking and filter bubbles from their own experience – and yet they are surprised, sometimes even shocked, which (amount of) data is collected about them on the web and what it’s used for. After our three days-long tour across Germany we are certain: interactive events like this one are much-needed, a lot more frequently, all over Germany and beyond.

The two-and-a-half-hours workshop of Fit and Safe includes online security training and a Krav Maga introductory course, provided by experienced and well-trained self-defense instructors. “Social media has become an integral part of our everyday lives, and even in a professional or school context, most of us can’t do without the web anymore,” Barbara Bermes, product manager for the mobile Firefox browsers who joined the tour, explains. “However, it is no longer possible to strictly separate online and offline worlds. We want users to know that security and self-defense skills are important to all areas of our lives and provide them with simple but effective advice”.

“But nobody cares about my data” and other modern fairy tales

“How many of you have ever used a password like ‘Password123’, your birthday or the name of your favorite band?” – almost all hands shoot up, in each of the workshops, in all 4 cities. “Do you know why such a password is insecure?” Heads get shaken, shoulders are shrugged. “Even if nobody was able to guess the password, it would still be incredibly easy for an algorithm to crack it. That’s why you should make it especially difficult with them in mind”, Barbara says. We talk about the nature of a secure password and why even everyday users should consider using a password manager app.

Even though many of the workshop participants keep hearing about hacks and data leaks, they doubt that they would ever be affected personally. After all, they are not famous or interesting for any other reason, that’s what we hear from the audience repeatedly. However, the data of every user, regardless of any demographic characteristics, will bring dollars on the web and their accounts may be used for many different, unpleasant activities. This comes as a surprise to many.

On tour with us is successful lifestyle blogger Bea la Panthere. As an online personality, she’s browsing the web basically non-stop, using various social networks and working on her website, which she started four years ago. Bea knows exactly what this brave new fully digitalized world comes with, good and bad alike – and she is excited to share her experiences with others: “This tour is all about building awareness. Awareness for the opportunities the Internet offers, but also for the risks we need to be aware of. And the deeper you dive into the online world, the more risks you may face. You just reveal more about yourself and thus become a bigger target. It’s more likely to become affected by data glitches and hacks, for example, if you have a lot of accounts. And your tracking profile also grows continually as you browse the web.” Nevertheless, scaremongering and pointing fingers never helped anyone and is clearly not the way to go for an independent organization like Mozilla, which fights to keep the Internet a global public resource, open and accessible to all. Practical advice is needed, examples to make abstract experiences more accessible, assess the situation and enable individuals to make informed decisions. And we brought exactly these to the tour.

Growing discomfort on the web

“I got a dog last year,” says Bea. “It’s a Viszla-Labrador mix, a rather special breed. Of course, I was always looking for products and information related to it. And one day an ad from a furniture store popped up in my Facebook feed, which showed a couch with a dog, just like mine, on it. I only noticed that this was odd when I later visited a friend who was presented the same ad, only that it had a Dalmatian in it. I probably don’t have to tell you now what type of dog she owns…”. Some participants shake their heads, others giggle in disbelief. These are examples users experience every day that make tracking and targeted ads creepy, even if they might not even know what’s actually happening. And it gets worse when the information used for targeted ads doesn’t even come from a proactive online search but from overheard conversations: “I once talked to my mom about a brand of sanitary cleaners. I had my smartphone nearby. The next day, I got ads for exactly these products on multiple websites”, a participants tells us. Everyone in the workshop smiles, some of them uncomfortably. Ads for sanitary cleaners may certainly be harmless, but the increasing uneasiness of the participants towards tracking and cookies becomes visible. They are honestly surprised about what data is collected about them. About the fact that they feed websites and search engines unconsciously, but quite voluntarily with personal information. And they start to feel monitored.

“Cookies and trackers aren’t bad per se,” Barbara says. “Websites also use them to provide you with better tailored results. But the point is that you should be able to decide for yourselves what information you’re willing to share and what it is used for.” Unfortunately, we’re not always given the choice. And while obnoxious or strongly personalized ads may be annoying or even creepy they’re still comparatively harmless. In a more serious case, detailed tracking profiles – comprehensive collections of information that allow a whole lot of conclusions to be drawn about the respective individuals – also favour filter bubbles.

Better privacy, fewer filter bubbles and misinformation

According to Wikipedia, a filter bubble is “a state of intellectual isolation that allegedly can result from personalized searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user”. It can obviously be problematic if users no longer see the entire spectrum of information, but only a small excerpt. They miss out on a lot and may experience information bias. That, in turn, can promote the spread of disinformation. “When I read something that seems strange to me, I always check it with other sources,” one participant contradicts. A justified objection; but the fact that so-called ‘fake news’ have become an everyday phenomenon proves that mankind’s collective perception unfortunately doesn’t always work that way. “I’m sure there are users who check their information carefully. However, many tend to be more convenient – that’s simply human nature. Also, we need to be aware that disinformation can be used specifically to influence people, for example by picking up and instrumentalizing existing beliefs,” Tana Schulte explains.

Tana is a trained psychologist and has been teaching Krav Maga for several years. She also trains new instructors. While Krav Maga is mostly known as a real-life self-defense technique, it is actually much more than that: The approach of You Can Fight!, the group Tana works with (just as Katrin, Chris and Andreas do, who were also involved in the Hamburg, Cologne and Munich events with Mozilla), is to make people strong. Their Krav Maga approach to self-defense, which is suitable for people of all ages and experience levels, provides a more secure feeling, promotes reflexes, the ability to assess situations correctly and strengthens self-confidence – skills that are quite beneficial in every life situation, online and offline. That’s one of the many reasons why we decided to start this combined workshop series.

How safe is safe enough?

There may be no such thing as absolute safety, neither online nor in the ‘real’ world. Tana therefore advises the Fit and Safe workshop participants to not engage in unnecessarily long fights, but to flee at the first opportunity. Of course, this cannot be a solution for the online world. Here, consciousness and the willingness to take the uncomfortable path from time to time are key. Making sure to secure yourself in the best possible way and to use a separate password for each account. Signing up for Firefox Monitor in order to be notified if taking action is required. Deciding for yourselves which websites may track you or add a cookie. Checking the access preferences of apps you use carefully and denying access when it’s unclear to you why the application asked for it in the first place. And using alternative products – search engines, browsers, messengers, email services – that have more than profit in mind. Let’s make sure the web really remains an open platform where we can all feel at home and safe.