Another Look at Virtual Integrity

November marks 10 years since my book, Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web, was published. One huge fact is even clearer today than a decade ago: Virtual actions dramatically affect offline life. Here's why we need the 7 habits of online integrity now more than ever.

by / November 11, 2018

"It happens every day. Debra, a junior at a prestigious Ivy League university, needs better grades. She downloads and submits someone else’s research.

Frank, a respected business man, plugs a pen drive into his work laptop. Within seconds he’s viewing inappropriate material and downloading copyrighted movies.

April and Sara, two twelve-year-old girls from Kansas are pretending to be twenty-something “valley girls.” They think they are chatting with the interesting nineteen-year-old hunk from Oregon in the picture. In reality, their online friend is a forty-three-year-old man who lives nearby.

Abigail, a lonely mom, desperately misses her traveling husband. After stumbling across an old boyfriend online, her catching-up has become frequent flirting.

What do all these people have in common? Each started in one part of cyberspace and ended up in another. Their online activities began with good intentions, but somehow things went astray. All of them underestimate their predicament. One by one, each will face serious consequences.

Scenes like these are repeated millions of times each day around the world. How did they get to that point? What are the long-term impacts?

Are you next?”

The above quote is taken from the opening chapter of my first book: Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web — published by Bravos Press (Baker Publishing House) in November 2008. This blog takes a look back over the past decade-plus, including more recent online developments regarding trust, integrity and personal online life.

Developing Ideas for ‘Virtual Integrity’ Book

Back in 2004-2005, while running Michigan government’s enterprise cybersecurity program as the first CISO in the state, I started to see unnerving trends in cyberspace that went well beyond stopping identity theft, data breaches or other cybercrimes that were the main focus of my day job. Indeed, these headline problems were actually masking other complicated online challenges affecting each of us daily at home and work.   

Before most cyberpros were talking about online reputations or brand damage, before ‘insider security threats’ were a big deal to many enterprises, before Microsoft or Amazon or Facebook or other social media sites honed detailed profiles to target each of us with ads or influence our Internet actions, I became concerned about how our online experiences were no accident. Tempting the click began in the 1990s for advertisers, but something more was happening. 

I coined a new term, “integrity theft” (that never took off), which I defined as tempting people to do wrong or go places online that violated their core values and beliefs.

What is 'integrity theft?'

Everyone is aware of the dangers associated with identity theft. Integrity theft is similar. But rather than your money or personal information being at risk from unseen hackers, it is your reputation, your career, or your important relationships that are threatened by online temptations and virtual actions. As we surf the Internet, we are offered intriguing images, videos, and other content that vie for our thoughts, dreams, time and money. We are enticed to act against our professed values and beliefs. While identity theft and integrity theft are both tragic, it is easier to repair your credit history than your reputation.

After the book was released, I was asked related questions about ethics online for well-meaning Web users in this online interview about the problems I was seeing. I expressed my views that the Internet provides an unlimited number of new possibilities in both positive and negative directions at the same time. People rename unethical behaviors in cyberspace. Plagiarism becomes “copying text.” Stealing becomes “downloading files.” Lying becomes “protecting yourself.” As these terms are inappropriately merged together, the lines between right and wrong become harder to recognize.”

Even as global cybercrime, hacking and the impact of data breaches has grown dramatically, the challenges faced by families have also grown regarding integrity theft. The Internet was (and still is) an accelerator for good and evil.

The book covered a variety of topics including filters, online deception, cheating on the Web, how identity theft and integrity theft are partners in crime and how cyberethics impacts your business and career. After presenting core problems, the seven habits of online integrity are offered along with a potential new future.

Virtual Integrity is now out of print, but used copies can still be purchased online. 

No doubt, some of my predictions were off - especially in the last two chapters. I underestimated the direction and power that companies Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and others would go regarding control of marketing and advertising. As brokers of online information, these Internet giants have tremendous power, and I believed that users would gain more privacy and ability to not be monitored. I also overestimated an individual’s personal ability to truly “surf your values” and control what content is delivered.  

Here was a Baker Publishing Group book promo from 2008:

This overall integrity theme has been highlighted by many others, like Amy Anderson in this Forbes blog on the importance of integrity in 2012:

“If I could teach only one value to live by, it would be this: Success will come and go, but integrity is forever. Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, whether or not anyone is watching. It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be. Building a reputation of integrity takes years, but it takes only a second to lose, so never allow yourself to ever do anything that would damage your integrity.

We live in a world where integrity isn’t talked about nearly enough. We live in a world where “the end justifies the means” has become an acceptable school of thought for far too many. Sales people overpromise and under deliver, all in the name of making their quota for the month. Applicants exaggerate in job interviews because they desperately need a job. CEOs overstate their projected earnings because they don’t want the board of directors to replace them.  Entrepreneurs overstate their pro formas because they want the highest valuation possible from an investor. Investors understate a company’s value in order to negotiate a lower valuation in a deal. Customer service representatives cover up a mistake they made because they are afraid the client will leave them. Employees call in “sick” because they don’t have any more paid time off when they actually just need to get their Christmas shopping done. The list could go on and on, and in each case the person committing the act of dishonesty told themselves they had a perfectly valid reason why the end result justified their lack of integrity. …”

Online Integrity Troubles Only Get Worse During Past Decade

As trust has deteriorated online, the problems I identified in the book have become even worse. Many friends and colleagues who initially thought the ideas in Virtual Integrity went too far regarding online integrity norms and description of other cyber problems, now think I didn’t go far enough.  

Later, I wrote a series of seven blogs for CSO magazine on why security pros fail in 2010, and several of those items include cyberethics. One of those pieces asked the personal question: Are you an insider threat? Here’s an excerpt:

“Oftentimes, security pros quietly think they are above Internet laws, company rules and regulations. As the cyber police, bending (or breaking) a policy may seem acceptable, as long as no one catches you in the process. Sometimes, it may even seem to be required — like the state police needing to speed to catch a car going 100 miles per hour. …

The trouble is that actions have consequences. This is a slippery slope. Or, more bluntly, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Many experts point to the need for better and more thorough training (which I support), but Darth Vader was well trained. (If you’re not familiar with the Star Wars movies or books, the talented, good Anakin Skywalker becomes the most evil and dangerous adversary of all — Darth Vader.)

The reality is that the smarter you are, the more you advance as a cyber security expert, the farther you go as a hacker, the greater your temptation will be. As you learn what the enemy does and how they do what they do (in order to stop them), the new ways to avoid detection, the secrets of the trade and the best ways to build and get around defenses, you will face a series of crossroads. Your ethics, values and beliefs will inevitably be tested. …”

Headline stories like Edward Snowden’s story and the hacking by foreign governments in elections has reduced online trust even further.

We’ve seen more cheating and widespread academic dishonesty on university campuses, and we still have split between consumers and industry on ethical use of data to target people subconsciously. Quote: “Asked how ethical it is to use people’s identity, behavior or emotional data to target them subconsciously with ads, content and media, only 23% of advertisers and agency executives said it was somewhat or completely unethical vs. 57% of consumers, according to the results of two different surveys conducted recently on behalf of Research Intelligencer.”  

In just this past week, I saw this blog from Brian Krebs about Bug Bounty Hunter Ran ISP Doxing Service: “A Connecticut man who’s earned bug bounty rewards and public recognition from top telecom companies for finding and reporting security holes in their Web sites secretly operated a service that leveraged these same flaws to sell their customers’ personal data, KrebsOnSecurity has learned. …”

How Can You Surf Your Values?

Which brings us to solutions moving forward. What can be done in 2019 and beyond? (No, another book is not planned — at least not yet.)

First, I still believe that the goals outlined in Virtual Integrity remain the same. Practicing the seven habits of online integrity remain essential — even more so in 2018 than in 2008 when the book was published. You can read the details behind each habit in the book.

Those seven habits of online integrity are:

  1. Refresh Your Values in Cyber-Space
  2. Pledge Personal Online Integrity
  3. Seek Trusted Accountability
  4. Apply Helpful Technology
  5. Balance Online and Offline Life
  6. Practice Humble Authenticity
  7. Become a Cyber-Ambassador for Good

Second, before you click, research where you are going online, what apps you are using, and what privacy and other settings are most appropriate — especially for social media websites. As you traverse the Internet, know who you trust (and can’t trust), where your data is online and think in advance about what you are willing to share online — before situations arise. Visit the online websites and portals that allow you to surf your values and interact in ethical ways.

Third, if you are doing well in these online areas, help others. There are so many people who are struggling in cyberspace right now. The last habit articulated of being a cyberambassador for good is an evolving challenge for all of us in different situations as we head into the 2020s.

Many parents have given up trying to help their tween or teenage children navigate this Internet journey (now mostly "surfing" with smartphones) with integrity, which is a scary proposition. Nevertheless, I am convinced that if you do not fight for what you believe in and strive to surf your values in cyberspace, you have already lost the battle. Rather than making a difference for good, you will become an online victim of integrity theft.      

Final Thoughts on Virtual Integrity

As I look back at the past 10 years online, there are too many online security and safety trends to mention quickly. Online and offline life continue to merge together as never before. Hopefully, my weekly blogs and annual round-ups of top cybertrends and stories can help in that regard.   

But as we head deeper into a world of autonomous vehicles, robots, drones, the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence, cyberethics will continue to matter much more than most people think. Integrity must undergird the millions of good things we can do in cyberspace, and without trust our online services and relationships and interactions will eventually fail.   

Take some time to think more about your online integrity. How do your values match up with your actions in cyberspace at home and work? Are you surfing your values? How about helping others? No one is perfect, and we have all made mistakes. Nevertheless, tomorrow is a new day. 

Despite our problems, strengthening the seven habits of online integrity will apply your positive offline character traits to online life.