In the past the message was simple. Don’t talk to strangers. But today some threats are not coming from strangers at all. In fact, some dangers are posed by the very familiar. By intimately trusted and often beloved things. Our digital devices. With fake news, questions over online privacy, digital surveillance and major cyber attacks in the news, it is not surprising that teachers feel too overwhelmed to help their pupils stay safe in the digital space and be savvy users of technology.
Technology experts often say that the user is the weakest link in the chain and all the technological security solutions in the world will be of little use if the user opens the door to attacks because of bad decisions. It is vital that teachers tackle this topic and provide their pupils, whatever their age and experience with digital technology, with the tools and practices to stay safe online.
Most broad attacks which affect thousands or millions of computers, such as the recent Wanna Cry ransomware attacks, usually rely on psychology as much as technology to trick the user into clicking a link which downloads malevolent software onto a device. We have been warned for years about being discerning about the email links we click on and even joke about receiving emails from Nigerian princes (I wonder if the real Nigerian princes even bother to send emails anymore), but the truth is that these attacks persist because they work. Email scams are often very convincing and can appear to come from people you know, often asking for help and quickly, but these broad attacks can rarely gather and send information which is accurate about both you and the apparent sender. The advice for you and your students is to contact the sender using a different form of communication if you have a nagging doubt to check it is from them. Thinking and healthy scepticism are the best defence from these attacks.
Most broad attacks are orchestrated by criminals, and a few are even allegedly sponsored by rogue states and politically motivated groups. These are illegal activities. But what about legal encroachments into your privacy? I believe that the notion of privacy is dead, and now we choose, or believe we choose the level of privacy we can tolerate. Each time you click to agree to those terms and conditions that you always read from beginning to end and understand completely, you are giving companies access to your information. It doesn’t take much information to form a fairly comprehensive profile on an individual. You might be fine with that. You have nothing to hide. But T&Cs change, companies are brought out, and hacks of databases are often in the news. Web browser cookies monitor your activity around the web with each click building a picture of your habits and preference.
There is a lucrative trade of information, and the education sector is no exception. As editor of this magazine, I often receive emails offering databases of teacher information which have been gathered from conference attendees, mailing lists or careers services for a price. We and our pupils need to realise that information in all its forms flows from place to place in the digital space. Therefore don’t share information that you would not like the whole world to see. This is especially relevant when governments around the world are advocating weaker encryption, greater surveillance and ‘back-doors’ without judicial oversight. But before the reader decides that I am a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist (I would, but THEY don’t let me), while the potential for abuse is clearly there, for the vast majority of us this will result in nothing more serious than a few unwanted emails and phone calls. Indeed, companies knowing your tastes and preferences has clear advantages for a tailored service. But it should be when you choose, especially as preventive measures are easy, such as using a different email address for new things you wish to sign up for, using browser tools which block tracking, and don’t give information unless to have to or are willing to.
A more acute issue, and one which many young people have had direct experience of is dealing with other people online, whether these are adults attempting to become better acquainted for the wrong reasons, or negative experiences of trolling and bullying. In my experience, schools talk about these issues, but rarely practise the procedures or look at the warning signs. Often schools are shrouded in a hyperactive digital cocoon where pupils will not encounter these threats. Yet at home, where their support network may not be as strong due to lack of digital security or parental oversight, they may be left to fend for themselves.
Whether the issue happens at home or at school advice for remain the same:
- Don’t share personal information digitally which you wouldn’t like to be made public, even with friends.
- Don’t feed the trolls.
- If things go wrong or you see something you don’t like, talk to an adult.
It is important that you let your pupils know that you are an adult they can talk to, even if you do not teach them directly about being savvy online. Form tutors and senior leaders need to ensure they are ready to discuss this if called upon.
Despite the dire consequences when things go wrong in the digital space, and despite all that is written above it is important not to be alarmist with pupils. This will only make them dismiss your warnings, as they will probably have not have seen the evidence first hand. They also may be less inclined to talk to you if things go wrong. Becoming e-savvy and lessons about being safe online should be built up slowly and addressed often, not just when the police or tech adviser from the local authority come into talk about it.
This is too important to ignore and leave to chance. Because remember… Pokemon know what you did last summer!