Kaspersky Research Sparks Free Speech Debate

With the advent of popular social media sites in the mid-noughties, such as Facebook and Twitter, billions of people worldwide have been given the ability to express their views and debate issues in the public realm, a unique phenomenon in human history.

Amid the positives, downsides have emerged. One of these is the so-called digital footprint, the concept that anything an individual posts on these platforms, from inexperienced teenagers to worldly pensioners, will remain on public record for the rest of time. While views change over time and past comments forgotten by those who made them, these posts can still come back to haunt people in the future. Indeed, in recent years, there have been numerous high-profile cases of people having their reputations damaged or even losing their livelihoods due to historic social media posts.

A new study and its subsequent coverage on social media by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky on this very topic have generated significant discussion and even annoyance among members of the cybersecurity community, who keep a keen eye on issues pertaining to data and privacy.

The controversy related to a survey the vendor carried out with over 8500 people across 11 European countries in the final months of 2021. This asked about internet users’ awareness and attitudes to their online privacy, with the goal of uncovering the level of understanding both of what and how much control people have over what they post online – undoubtedly, an interesting and important topic amid surging internet and social media usage throughout the world.

Kaspersky recently created a post on its official Twitter account with an accompanying infographic to highlight some of the findings. This showcased what the study participants considered to be the “top 10 topics shared online that are thought to be the most harmful for future job prospects and relationships.” Worryingly, people considered the expression of opinions about a range of legitimate and arguably widely-held viewpoints to be potentially harmful to their futures. For example, featuring in the top 10 were being pro-abortion (18%), support for protest groups (17%), pro-COVID-vaccine (17%) and being anti-woke (16%).

The suggestion that expressing such opinions online could damage future prospects provoked dismay and anger. Regina Bluman, security analyst at Algolia and regular industry commentator (@RegGBlinker), responded: "Just to be very clear, I am pro-abortion, pro-vaccine, I believe #BLM, that policing needs serious reform, and that women should be able to walk alone at night without fearing for their lives. If that hurts my job prospects, I don’t want to work for your company anyway.”

Fellow cybersecurity industry stalwart Rik Ferguson, VP of security research at Trend Micro (@rik_ferguson), shared a similar sentiment, tweeting: “Thanks for the advice Kaspersky, I think I’ll just continue to go with following my conscience though #provax #prochoice #BLM.”

Now, it is important to emphasize that Kaspersky was merely showcasing their survey findings rather than offering advice. Bluman told Infosecurity: “I want to believe their intentions were good with this research. We have known for a long time that employers can and often do research on potential hires on social media, and some people may not realize what their social media activity signals to employers. I think they were probably trying to highlight that job-seekers may want to be careful with what they share or interact with – and that is an utterly valid warning.”

"We have known for a long time that employers can and often do research on potential hires on social media, and some people may not realize what their social media activity signals to employers"

David Emm, senior security researcher at Kaspersky, emphasized that the findings were related to the perceptions of those surveyed rather than the views of employers when responding to Bluman’s Twitter post. “i wouldn’t disagree. although this is what people surveyed *think* might harm future job prospects, not what employers say will hurt them.”

He later reiterated this message to Infosecurity: “The first thing I’d say is that these findings are a reflection of the fears our respondents already have,” noted Emm. He further explained that the findings should not be interpreted as advising people to hide their beliefs on social media but rather for them to be mindful of the potential long-term impact of historic comments in the digital realm. “If I made an off-the-cuff remark to a friend, colleague or stranger a generation ago, it would typically be a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ comment. What our research underlines is the permanent nature of what we share on social media. I would urge people to be authentic in what they say, within the bounds of what’s legal and with respect for other people’s individual human rights, but to be conscious that there is likely to be a permanent record of what they post.”

Impact on Free Speech?

However, Bluman and Ferguson informed Infosecurity of their concerns about the way these results were presented and the potentially chilling impact this approach may have on free expression. The first is a lack of context about the people who were surveyed. Bluman highlighted the example of social attitudes to issues like birth control and abortion, which vary significantly across Europe. “It says they surveyed people across 11 European countries – but birth control is still illegal in some European countries! There is a huge disparity in social attitudes across Europe, so to present this as fact without giving readers that insight is irresponsible in the extreme,” she said.

Ferguson noted that the age of the individuals surveyed (with 16-21 year-olds representing 50% of those surveyed and 35+ year-olds just 25%) heavily influenced the topics included in the top 10. He therefore questioned how relevant the insights are for society at large. “From reading the study methodology, it becomes clear that these statistics really represent the opinion of ‘people aged 16 and over’ of ‘what they feel are most risky and what they feel the outcome may be.’”

He also pointed out that the study’s skew towards younger people makes it safe to assume that those actually in a position to make hiring decisions were underrepresented. This may give viewers a false perception that employers are checking if prospective candidates hold these kinds of opinions, leading to a negative impact on free speech and public discourse. “Rather than encouraging an atmosphere of open debate about difficult subjects, this kind of ‘advice’ achieves nothing other than to push potentially harmful voices and opinions into darker corners where they cannot be challenged or to discourage those with passionately held views about rights to equality and equity from expressing them in public. Neither of these is a good outcome,” said Ferguson.

"This post has the very real possibility of silencing advocates and allies who may be too scared of the implications of getting involved in social causes"

Bluman concurred, stating: “This post has the very real possibility of silencing advocates and allies who may be too scared of the implications of getting involved in social causes.”

How Should the Findings Be Interpreted?

Given these criticisms, how should people keen to engage in social causes and express their views via social media interpret Kaspersky’s research?

The first thing to note, according to Bluman, is that the findings go against modern ideals of being able to bring your true authentic self into the workplace. However, she acknowledged not everyone is in this position. “My advice comes from a place of huge privilege, which I'm absolutely aware of, so when I say that people should ignore that research wholeheartedly and continue to support causes that are important to them, I'm acutely aware that not everyone has that luxury,” she commented.

For these individuals, she advised: “Go to a place where you are allowed and encouraged to be yourself – they do exist! If you don't know how to find them, look back to social media! Look at your favorite non-anonymous accounts to see who they work for, and start there.”

Likewise, Ferguson was keen for people not to be dissuaded from expressing potentially controversial views. However, he cautioned that these should always be posted with reason and respect. “I believe that each of us has the right to our own opinions and that we should be free to express them. Of course, this right is always tempered with compassion and consideration for others and an outright rejection of prejudice and bigotry. If you are going to express what you believe might be a contentious view on social media, make sure that you can articulate why you hold that view and that it stands up to scrutiny, tolerance, equality and respect,” he explained.

Kaspersky’s Emm agreed with such a balanced approach and emphasized his and Kaspersky’s belief that people should not feel they cannot express their own views. “I suspect that many people would choose not to work somewhere with a culture that is completely at odds with their own beliefs. This clearly applies also to relationships. I think the key is to be true to yourself, but to recognize that there are times when it’s important to be circumspect,” he outlined.

Kaspersky’s research has shone a light on an important issue – that social media posts remain on record and may be accessed in the future by people who will have a huge influence on their lives. However, it is important to put this issue into its proper context and avoid unnecessarily frightening people into silence. Legitimate viewpoints, backed up by reason, and even opinions expressed by naïve youngsters, should not damage future career chances. It boils down to the kind of world we want to create – one where people are scared into silence? Or one where open discussion and debate are tolerated and encouraged?

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