The Sara Chana Chronicles

This blogs represents my thoughts and opinions, and are not necessarily the views of my employer.

Keeping Children Safe on the Internet (Part 1)

Keeping Children Safe on the Internet (Part 1)

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I’m not the foremost expert on this subject, but I am a parent and think about these matters a lot. Even in the technical world I operate in I often find parents know this kind of stuff but rarely do they secure their home environments as much as they do their work environments. Although the Internet is a great leveller in terms of access to information and providing education, it is also fraught with danger; so much so, in fact, that I feel like people should earn some kind of Internet Driver’s License before they gain unfettered access to it. Somehow the average lay person seems to take a semi-ambivalent view of their safety when it comes to the use of the Internet. Banks have been attempting to take the steps they can to warn consumers and business about not clicking links in emails and/or replying to them, but somehow, other than an example such as that most Internet issues seem to be ignored.

I’ve been assembling my thoughts and it dawned on me just how much stuff is sitting in my head and how useful that information could be to others. Perhaps empowering parents who may feel relatively helpless and ignorant to do much more or simply helping them to understand and not underestimate the threats that the Internet brings will help them to ensure that they and their children get the best out of the Internet while limiting their exposure to the worst. It is impossible to write about every possible threat and how to mitigate them in a simple blog like this, but there are a number of excellent web sites you can use as resources to find out more and help others be a bit safer than they might be right now.

Take a moment to think about the problem. Various forms of criminals have been around almost since the origin of mankind and, yes, they exist on the Internet too! In fact you’ll find many of the things that may be abhorrent to you were on the Internet long before you embraced it. Just like the pornography industry drove the adoption of DVD technology, online gambling was the first truly successful commercial enterprise on the Internet with distribution of pornography following closely behind. Spam (unsolicited commercial email or junk mail) has been around almost as long as gambling and generating revenue too. Other than our children accidentally or purposefully viewing these types of materials and participating in these enterprises have we really considered the threats that are out there to any meaningful extent? In the various conversations I have with adults and parents in general my gut feel tells me that Internet threats are not properly considered or taken seriously enough to warrant their attention. The causes may be ignorance, laziness or even a feeling these things are blown out of proportion, but let’s look at the problem anyway.

In July 2008 a survey conducted in the United States resulted in the following statistics:  

·        One in five U.S. teenagers who regularly logs on to the Internet say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web.

·        25% of children have been exposed to unwanted pornographic material online.

·        75% of children are willing to share personal information online about themselves and their family in exchange for goods and services.

·        Only approximately 25% of children who encountered a sexual approach or solicitation told a parent or adult.

·        One in 33 youth received an aggressive sexual solicitation in the past year. This means a predator asked a young person to meet somewhere, called a young person on the phone, and/or sent the young person correspondence, money, or gifts

·        77% of the targets for online predators were age 14 or older. Another 22% were users ages 10 to 13.

The problem is greatly exacerbated by the behaviours of Generation Y and Z “Digital Natives” born between 1980 to the present. "Digital Natives" are born in a time when computers are common in the workplace and at home and take mobile phones and access to the Internet for granted. In fact some “digital adaptives” (those of us who embrace technology that didn't exist in our childhoods) or Generation X people born between the years 1965 to 1979 behave in a similar way. They expect a safety net. They don’t expect big brands to get it wrong, and if they do, that somehow all will be taken care of. Just as some children expect to be able to run home to Mom or Dad if their lives go into disarray, we find people somehow expect the Internet to be safe as long as we’re running a virus checker and only using well-known sites. So let’s look at the problems we can encounter and consider just how many of these are actually aided or mitigated by a virus checker:

·        Phishing – just as some men like to stand in a river with a hook dangling in the water because something might just happen, phishing is all about casting out a fraudulent email or advert and hoping some people fall for it and unintentionally share their name, password and/or banking details. When your child receives a link in email to contact someone or to provide their personal details are you sure they know how to behave?

·        Cyber-bullying – unfortunately the Internet is a great enabler for bullying. Consider cyber-bullying can take place over mobile phones (text, SMS, chat rooms), email, instant messaging and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace etc. The effects of cyber-bullying can be far worse than some other types of bullying because it can be broadcast widely and usually people behind a keyboard seem less cautious about what they type than what they say.

·        Sharing of personal information – what is the price we pay for access to free stuff? Usually it is information about ourselves. Often the more information we’re willing to share the more access to free stuff we get. Has anyone considered what happens to that information or how it is used? Although many large companies may use this information for purposes that are legal, there are plenty of websites out there that feel no qualms about what they do with the information.

·        Sharing of personal photos – when your child shares that cute photo of herself in front of your home how is that dangerous? Has anyone ever wondered how predators find their prey?

·        Unwanted images, content and adverts – as the statistics clearly demonstrate, your children are inundated with unwanted, explicit material whether their activities on the Internet are honourable or not. What are you doing about it?

·        Illegal music and video piracy – what’s the harm signing up to some of these sites or running special peer to peer file sharing programmes that allow me to download music and the latest movies? Aren’t music CD’s and DVD’s way too expensive anyway? First of all it is illegal and exposes your family to the risk of massive fines, a criminal record and/or a prison sentence. Second, those cool sites usually do a lot with your personal information and who knows what that little piece of peer to peer sharing software is doing to your computer. Consider that an entirely legal, well written and simple piece of software like Apple iTunes can make over 5000 changes to your Windows-based computer and then consider that just one simple change your illegal pirating software may make could affect your life dramatically by uploading all your personal details, files and passwords to a criminal’s Internet address all without you knowing. You might just be giving criminals an open door to gain access to your children too. To exacerbate the problem even further most children think nothing of sharing pirated software and content. They just don't understand the link and only a parent can explain it to them before it's too late.

·        Memes, Blogs, journals and poems – Memes are brilliant fun. The term originates from Richard Dawkin's invention of the phrases in his book The Selfish Gene, but in Internet subculture it's a catchphrase or concept that catches on quickly i.e. those emails you send around with personal questions about yourself which you answer and forward to 20 friends who answer and then send to 20 friends and so on. Has anyone ever stopped to consider where these emails ultimately go, and how they travel around the Internet? Has anyone stopped for even one moment to consider that the teenage angst or feelings of loneliness and anger your children may write about in their status updates, online blogs and journals and in poetry may just be very useful in helping a sexual predator play the understanding other person and start grooming your child for attack?

·        IM and Chat Rooms – What we speak about in instant messages and chat rooms may be forever archived. Chat rooms are wonderful places for predators to seek out their prey and instant messaging is a great tool for cyber-bullying. Consider a simple scenario amongst girls. Jane and Sally are chatting one another. They having a nice conversation about their friends. Jane asks an innocent question about something one of their friends did, and Sally may be led to make a nasty or disparaging remark about the 3rd party. What Sally might not know is that Jane could be sitting with a group of friends while they chat, and that what she’s just typed will either lead to her isolation or get her put on a ‘hit list’ so that everyone in the school starts picking on her.

·        Sex predators – Although these seem an obvious threat how many people actually know some basics about their methods? If you did you’d probably think twice about letting your children on the Internet at all!

·        Sharing of Passwords – How many children know to treat their passwords like an ATM card PIN. I’ll bet many will be prepared to share their passwords with a friend in order to let them use their computer or to gain access to theirs. Right now passwords are everything and we need to be cautious about the types of passwords we use, how and where we store them and who we’re prepared to share them with.

·        Pirate software, cool free stuff, viruses, worms and key loggers (often all called malware) – be honest with yourself. Are you running any pirate software? Who did you get it from, and where did they get it from and so on? I have friends who copy original software and then download cracks. Of course I let them know how I feel about that, but has anyone considered the threats? Pirate software is often distributed by people associated with organized crime. Is it beyond imagination that the cracks you download or the illegal cracked version of Windows or Office you downloaded might have a payload you weren’t suspecting? Just like viruses you inadvertently collect can destroy your computer, payloads (commonly referred to as Trojan horses or Trojans) in illegal software or free, cool software may copy all of your information from your computer or install key-loggers that record every keystroke you make and send them to a central location for analysis. The money you saved pirating software may literally cause the destruction of your personal or financial life and put your family at risk! Piracy is illegal and can lead to criminal charges, large fines and even jail terms too!

While my list above may not be comprehensive enough for some let’s consider how many of these are mitigated by anti-virus software. You might just be lucky and be saved from some payloads in peer to peer file sharing software, trojan horses, viruses and worms, but that’s literally about it! If you’ve bought additional software you might prevent some keywords, websites and pictures from being accessed, but most threats our children face only a parent can mitigate. It’s the age old techniques that work that best too, education and a good relationship with children that fosters open and honest communication. When our children stamp their feet and demand sweets when we don’t want them too have they generally don’t get away with their temper tantrums, but when our children demand unfettered access to the Internet without our supervision because they don’t want their privacy invaded how many of us just allow that because we’re dumbfounded and don’t know how to answer. If you’re a parent who is happy to drop their 12 year old child off at the mall unsupervised to watch movies with her nearly 13 year old friend, then you’re the kind of parent who probably doesn’t mind that your children can easily become, chas vesholom, victims of assault or worse! It’s no different for the Internet. Being a parent extends to the Internet, and knowing as much about the threats in the virtual world as you do about those in the physical world is a responsibility you shoulder as soon as you grant your children access to the Internet. There is no safety net! The big brands sometimes slip-up too and even they can’t protect against all types of threats.

The reality is even technology people, even the really smart guys, tend to forget that process applies in their customer environments as much is in their own. To become safer on the Internet we need to be concerned about educating our children, putting in place the right tools and then monitoring.

In the “old” days people would write viruses and mess with peoples’ computers because it boosted their ego and showed how smart they were. In the late 1980’s some silly guy wrote a virus that caused a ball to bounce around your screen as your were working. It was aptly named the bouncing ball virus and though it was amusing it was difficult to get rid of because it spread so quickly. It did so in the days when there was practically no consumer use of the Internet and companies were not network connected. Mostly it was spread via pirate operating systems or someone accidentally booting a floppy disc that had it on it. It was funny in a way. The writer must have been so proud, but it caused no real harm other than annoyance. One of my customers at the time wanted me to “clean” every single one of her discs because she thought the virus could jump from one disc to another just like the flu virus does in humans!

These days things are somewhat different. Very smart criminals write much of the malware we find present on the Internet. They do this in a calculated way to target millions of people and gain as much information as they can to steal money or sell your personal information to others to be used for identity theft. Just as some criminals will target your banking details there are other considerably worse people characters who will use similar methods to gain access to a 'fresh supply' of children. Consider what they might just do with those cute photos of your 12 year old daughter in her Purim costume outside your home, especially if they can somehow reach her via a social network, email or chat room. Much of what you put on the Internet is essentially an inadvertent advert of yourself. As criminals collate data about you they may soon have enough information about you to start taking advantage of you. How much information is enough? Think how your daughter would respond to a girl her own age in a chat room if the other girl knew what school she went to, her favourite colour and her pet’s name. Think how often we share simple information like that on the Internet without thinking. Guess what? A 49 year old sexual predator can also sign-up to your child’s favourite social network site and pretend he’s a young girl. Think how easily he could become her best online friend, and that one day when you drop her off at a mall to watch movies with a friend it just might be that 'friend' she’s meeting! A couple of years ago I met a woman at a conference in the USA who runs her own IT Security and Training company. Her form of charity is to go online pretending to be a young girl and in doing so helps the authorities catch and convict criminals just like these. They're there and they're real, and they're just as active in South Africa as everywhere else. It is not some urban legend! Some of you may think their children could never become victims of such attacks but you are all wrong! If you never taught them, and their friends never taught them they are at risk. Just last month a friend of mine had an enormous amount of money stolen from his bank account in a phishing attack. I regularly get messages in my instant messaging client from friends whose accounts have been taken over, and I know plenty of people who have had their social networking accounts taken over. My daughter regularly gets invites from strangers on Facebook too.

So what’s the harm if a mobile phone gets stolen (other than money and inconvenience) or if a social networking account is taken over? It puts your friends at risk because criminals now suddenly have access to the private information many of your friends shared only with you and a limited set of other people. Your flippant attitude to having a secure password, securing your phone and not securing your information because you consider it inconvenient may become extremely costly to you and many around you. It's the potential price you and they pay because having to unlock your phone or remember a complex password is too inconvenient for you. What if your daughter's friend's phone got stolen and she received an SMS/text message from the phone saying meet me behind the bicycle sheds? How would she know it was not her friend and who could be waiting for her there? It's a scary thought and boys are just as much at risk!

Let’s think about Facebook for a moment; not because Facebook is bad or more unsafe than any other social network, but because it is so widely used and a good example of a social network many of us use and know well. The last statistics I have, and they could easily be well short of the numbers now, show that Facebook has approximately 500 millions users, with at least 35 million of those users updating their status’ daily and 3 billion photos being uploaded each month! It is an enormously successful and fun site to make use of. Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario just to demonstrate what could happen, and could be happening every day. You find a new application on Facebook that let’s you send a virtual present for the various holidays to all your friends. You decide to add it and accept its terms and conditions of use, which includes being allowed to update your status and access your profile. No problem you think, and you send it off to the first 20 to 30 friends a day you’re allowed to. They see it’s from their trustworthy and reliable friend so they accept your gift graciously and accept the terms and conditions too. Regardless of the terms and conditions of Facebook or those for developing applications for Facebook, just like any application on the Internet, the effects of applications like these can normally only be responded to retroactively. Do you really consider what information you’re handing an application written by someone anywhere in the world? Nearly every time you add a Facebook application you’re sharing your personal information with someone, somewhere and you don’t even know them and what they might do with it. Your children are doing the same; in fact probably more so because they love the hugs, hearts and teddy bears even more! I must stress this is not a Facebook only problem, but it clearly indicates who is responsible for keeping their information private! YOU! Now that you’re aware, think about talking to your children.

Part 2 will appear soon, but for now take these steps immediately!

Talk frankly with your children about online risks including:

·        Online criminals

·        Inappropriate content

·        Invasion of privacy

·        Not responding to spam or clicking links in emails

Empower them by teaching them how their behaviour can reduce their risks online:

·        Never giving personal information to a stranger, or put them anywhere public

·        Never making friends with a person they've never met in person

·        Not giving their passwords to anyone

·        Not using their passwords on computers they/you don’t control – they can have malware on them which can steal them

·        Always to log out, even if using educational software at school

·        Remind them that what someone tells them on the Internet might not be true

·        Always to let you sign them up to Internet sites, and never to do that themselves - you must always read and understand their privacy statements and never be too rushed because your child puts you under pressure!

·        Never to install software they downloaded without your permission – Newer operating systems such as Windows 7 give you even more control over what you allow your children to do

·        Never to put their emotions in a public status update, journal, blog, forum, chat room or any other location on the Internet

·        Tell you if anything they encounter makes them feel uncomfortable – they must trust their gut and involve you immediately

·        Never to delete any threatening or nasty emails, and to keep their replies – these may be needed to help investigations at some point

There is so much more to cover, but hopefully this has awakened something within you that will help you and also prompt you do to more research.

Be an awesome Internet parent!

  • Wow, I thought your talk will only apply to parents with younger kids, but tonight my three older kids will be forced to read your blog. I even feel inclined to let them write a test on it.

    Good job, Sarah! Thank you for the eye opener.

  • I'm really glad you enjoyed my presentation today.

    Watch out for Part 2, which has even more detail later this week.

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