Digital hygiene: basic rules of prevention

By Isabella Corradini and Enrico Nardelli

 

Digital hygiene, a weird title. If taken literally, it would imply cleaning our digital instruments. Maybe we should talk about it, as mobile phones, smartphones and tablets are now part of the human body and we take them everywhere, since we both need them and are addicted to them (worthless to deny it), and their cleaning is not always treated with the same attention we use for ourselves.

Actually, we are talking about hygiene in the traditional sense. Hygiene rules have been taught since our childhood and they are one of the prevention measures that have most contributed over the last two centuries to lengthen the average life span. But in the digital world it is not so usual to hear these words. People sometimes use the expression digital hygiene to refer to how they relate to others in social networks or how not to become slaves of their own devices, but that’s not our interpretation.

In our view, this expression has instead to be used in a way similar to what happens in the physical world, where hygiene norms are appropriate for preventing illness. Here, the discovery by Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis was crucial in the mid-nineteenth century, and thousands of women’s lives were saved. He observed that, washing his hands after an autopsy and before assisting women in labour, the frequency of their mortality was enormously reduced. Hence, washing one’s own hands became the fundamental ritual before starting surgical operations. This didn’t happen overnight, though, since it took a few decades – as is sometimes the case – for this discovery to be accepted and spread.

By extension, it became one of the basic tenets taught to all children: “Wash your hands ” is still the rule before going to the table and, more generally, whenever one comes home. The fundamental motivation is that “out there” there is a world that can be hostile because of microbes and infections, and it’s important to take countermeasures.

While in the physical case this message is widely accepted and socially shared, unfortunately the digital version of the same prevention message is less immediate. For example, how many people are still inserting unknown USB sticks or opening unknown attachments on their devices (PCs, tablets, or smartphones) without being aware that they can be infected?

The analogy is entirely true: the digital world is populated by “life forms” that are not always benign towards our “digital self”. Viruses and worms, for example, continue to spread at an alarming rate, and current precautions do not seem to be sufficiently effective.

A partial justification is that the evolution of these digital organisms has proceeded at an elusive speed for humans. For traditional physical hygiene rules the present generation has benefitted from their parents’ education, while for digital hygiene we have not yet developed the adequate “sensors”.

Of course, digital hygiene rules can be annoying, and even limit our range. Some people would say that they are obvious and it is pointless to repeat them. Not so, since there are still people who insert pen drives into their computers without thinking.

Terminology used in the digital context does not help to understand the importance of these rules. In fact, using words like “virtual” or prefixes like “cyber” drives people away from a real perception of physical dangers, so they think that digital hygiene standards are irrelevant.

Probably the best way to make people understand, accept and apply the digital hygiene rules is to establish a connection to the analogous hygiene rule in the physical world. People could thus better understand that what happens in their PCs and their mobile devices is not virtual but real, as its consequences are.

People’s awareness could just start from here.

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