Teach your kids to embrace – not fear – the power of the internet

Yesterday I participated in a Twitter party hosted by @TheOnlineMom * to discuss the questions:

How much do we trust our kids online?
Can we monitor them closely and build trust?

The focus of the discussion was, as the topic questions hint at, how do we keep our kids safe? How do we protect them from all of the evils lurking out there waiting to swoop in and take advantage of them? Perhaps the biggest question, though, was: How do we protect our kids from themselves online?

It was a great discussion (you can see it at #TheOnlineMom), but it reminded me a lot of a not so pleasant PTO meeting about kids online that I attended a couple of years ago, when my kids had just started high school.  I’m not sure what I was expecting from the meeting, but you can probably imagine my horror when I realized that the basic point of the meeting was for internet safety experts to tell us how evil the internet is and that unless we did something our kids would end up dead in a ditch somewhere at the hands of a sexual predator.

OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The focus of the meeting was indeed the evils that lie in wait for our kids, and what we as parents should – MUST – do to protect them. You can see much of what they talked about on the district’s Internet Safety Resources for Parents page.

I had a hard time sitting still through this and not speaking up as they brought out negative after negative (after negative). I waited until the Q&A and then asked what I thought was a reasonable question: Do you (the school district or the presenters) have any related presentations that describe the positive opportunities the internet provides to our kids?

It wasn’t the first time – I’m sure it won’t be the last – that people looked at me like I had two (or seven) heads.

A big part of the problem, as I saw it then, was that so few of the parents in the meeting actually used the internet themselves. A case of ignorance breeding a deep fear of the unknown. Amazingly, I saw some of the same thing last night in the discussion, comments like “I hope my kids never hear about Facebook” (from parents of very young kids) to the question, “Many parents ask whether there is any learning value in social networks for teens, what do you think?”

Here’s how I responded to that last question:

Social networks – virtual or real life – are the primary way that everyone learns, teens included.

Unlike that PTO meeting all those years ago, the discussion last night also included quite a few voices of (what I would call) reason, parents who see more than just the potential dangers. But even so, there was very little discussion of the power of the internet in the hands of our kids, especially teenagers arguably going through the most potentially creative time of their lives.

What if, instead of simply warning our kids about the dangers of the internet, monitoring (or trying to) their every keystroke, and telling them they can’t do this or that, we start by showing them what they CAN do online, how they CAN use all of the incredible tools available to accomplish what they want to accomplish. All of the incredible places they can go online, all the things they can learn, and everything they can share with the world (besides those racy photos or gossipy rants)?

As I shared with the group last night, my job as a parent is not to protect my kids from the world, it is to teach them how to protect themselves. Not just in a “defensive” way, but by taking the offensive, understanding the world so they can go out and make their own mark.

Fear, and caution, have their place. But you can’t let them rule your life. This is what we should be teaching our kids.

* If you are a parent of pre-college kids and are looking for a great resource for dealing with technology as it relates to your kids, you should make The Online Mom one of your regular stops on the web.

Social savvy, yes – tech savvy, not so much

It is easy to look at ‘the younger generation’ and think, “Wow, these kids really know computers and networking.” I used to think along the same lines. I mean, how could they use such cool tools and not want to know how they work, not take the time to figure out what makes them tick.

But when you talk to these kids, you quickly realize that most of them don’t have a clue about how it all works. I had this epiphany a few years ago when I was talking to a couple of teenagers about some piece of tech, probably video game tech, and realized that if something went wrong they would be out of luck.

Disc drive not working? No sound? Internet connection is down? Bummer, dude.

Bruce Schneier puts it very well in a recent discussion about privacy and the individual (which I found thanks to @jmcgee at McGee’s Musings):

The younger generation is very fluent about how to use the internet, but completely clueless about how it works technically. Socially very savvy, technically very unsavvy.

Of course, this isn’t really anything new and I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Just looking back to my own teen years gives me all the insight I really need. Back then the main way to communicate was the telephone. I can count on one hand the other kids my age that knew – or cared – how the telephones worked; you should have seen the looks on their face when I tried to engage them in discussions about DTMF replacing pulse-dialing.

The reason the iPhone is so popular, and services like Facebook, Twitter, etc have so many users is because you don’t really have to understand how they work in order to use them. And that was fine when all you had was the telephone. But, as Schneier points out, today’s online social exchanges are different. All of our interactions on these digital services create an incredible amount of data; data about us, about our interests, and about our connections.

Understanding how the systems that own – and yes, they do own – this data about you work is critical. And not just for the kids, either.

The biggest security threat in the digital age is…

… not Microsoft, not social media tools, but: PEOPLE.

A recent blog post by Dave Snowden and some commentary by Luis Suarez have reminded me of something Bruce Schneier said a while back (in 2004, actually):

Since the beginning of time, people have always been the biggest security threat. That hasn’t changed because of computers. People are why firewalls are invariably misconfigured. They’re why social engineering works. They’re why good security products are rarely deployed properly. Securing the computer and network is hard, but it’s much easier than securing the person sitting on the chair in front of the monitor. (emphasis is mine)

In his commentary, Luis makes an interesting point that social networking – not the tools, but the activity – may be in part responsible for these types of lapses in security and uses it as a teaching point.

And, for once, social networking didn’t have anything to do with it. Oh, did it? Well, perhaps it has got plenty to do with it!; after all, don’t social software tools encourage us all to listen to what’s happening out there? Maybe they will also help us understand how we can mitigate those perceived risks by having each and everyone of us walking the talk, i.e. behaving responsively with the information and knowledge that we are exposed to, and share across accordingly, day in day out, for that matter… You wouldn’t want a total stranger to know, coming out right out of your mouth!, your full credit card number, your date of birth and any other kind of identification material, right? (emphasis his)

In the military this is called OPSEC, or Operational Security, and it is drilled into soldiers’ heads almost daily. It is, in other words, a way of life.

On the other hand, there is a fine line between appropriate security and being paranoid. With an understanding of what you really need to protect, and what is not so vital, and a bit of thought, you should be able to find that line.

And it is a line that you need to find.

A War on the Unexpected

In November 2007, security consultant Bruce Schneier wrote an article for Wired.com entitled The War on the Unexpected, which he opened with the following paragraph:

We’ve opened up a new front on the war on terror. It’s an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it’s a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested — even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

As the parent of a soon-to-be-adult son with autism, the words I’ve highlighted in Schneier’s quote above seemed to jump out at me.  All of them apply to my son, and I’m sure to many – if not all – autistic children and adults. This article came back to my mind as I read Kristina’s post Arrested: The Charge? Bad Behavior, in which she describes the arrest of a 13 year old autistic boy and a 19 year old man with fetal alcohol syndrome.  This is, of course, not the first such incident to have happened, only the most recent that I’ve become aware of.

There is a legitimate issue concerning what consideration, if any, should be given to a person’s autism diagnosis with respect to criminal activity.  (See, for example, the case of Gary McKinnon.)  But all too often people with autism are approached, and often apprehended, by law enforcement personnel simply because they are “acting weird” and making bystanders “uncomfortable”.

In his article, Schneier has two recommendations to stop this war on the unexpected.

We need to do two things. The first is to stop urging people to report their fears. People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they’re spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.

Equally important, politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong. And everyone needs to stop castigating, and prosecuting, the victims just because they embarrassed the police by their innocence.

More awareness by the public at large, and law enforcement specifically, about autism and autistics is key to at least remove autism and autistics from the category of “unexpected”.

Schneier on Security: Communications During Terrorist Attacks are Not Bad

In Communications During Terrorist Attacks are Not Bad, Bruce Schneier calls Twitter a “vital source of information” during the recent attacks in Mumbai.  But not everyone agrees, as there were reports that Indian authorities were trying to get people to stop posting information, apparently fearing that the terrorists would be able to use this information.  To that, Bruce says: 

This fear is exactly backwards. During a terrorist attack — during any crisis situation, actually — the one thing people can do is exchange information. It helps people, calms people, and actually reduces the thing the terrorists are trying to achieve: terror. Yes, there are specific movie-plot scenarios where certain public pronouncements might help the terrorists, but those are rare. I would much rather err on the side of more information, more openness, and more communication.

Schneier also includes a quote from David Stephenson in his post US officials must monitor, learn from use of Web 2.0 in Mumbai:

I can’t stress enough: people can and will use these devices and apps in a terrorist attack, so it is imperative that officials start telling us what kind of information would be relevant from Twitter, Flickr, etc. (and, BTW, what shouldn’t be spread: one Twitter user in Mumbai tweeted me that people were sending the exact location of people still in the hotels, and could tip off the terrorists) and that they begin to monitor these networks in disasters, terrorist attacks, etc.

The challenge, of course, is to get authorities to be able to monitor these tools in the event of disaster (man-made or natural) and yet resist the urge to turn it into yet another wholesale surveillance program.

Government 2.0

Stories earlier this week about President-elect Barack Obama and his Blackberry got me thinking about how our elected leaders and their staffs are (or not) using the potential of  “stuff 2.0” (“stuff” = “web”, “enterprise”, “KM”, etc) in the execution of their duties.

For example:  It used  to make sense for Senators and Congressmen to basically live in Washington, DC and go back to their home districts on occasion; after all, they have to be present in order to vote.  But does that still make sense?

With the technology available for collaboration, and the security of PKI and other technologies to support digital voting, why not flip that around?  Set up your main base in your home state / district and travel to Washington, DC for special occassions.

Protecting important files with TrueCrypt

In Information wants to be free, but you still have to protect it, I talked about Bruce Schneier‘s recommendation to encrypt an entire disk instead of just your key files.  But sometimes you want to protect your key files as well, either on your system drive, an external hard drive, or a USB thumb drive. 

TrueCrypt is one option for this and, as Lifehacker tells us today, it now supports Mac OS in addition to Windows and Linux.  For more on how to install and use TrueCrypt on Windows, check out this Lifehacker article.