The Girl Scouts of the USA will roll out new cybersecurity badges in 2018. Among the 18 awards is a brand new lesson on protecting online privacy. Older Girl Guides will also have the opportunity to try out ethical hacking, and learn how to use firewalls effectively. Many of these girls will wind up knowing more about online threats than their parents.
The new Girl Scout badges are intended to get more girls interested in STEM, as well providing an overdue equivalent to the Boy Scouts’ Cyber Chip. And the girls’ scheme is sponsored by Palo Alto Networks, which recognizes the need for a privacy-aware workforce made up of diverse individuals.
All good so far. And it’s great that privacy is covered (briefly) in schools as well. But we’re still falling short of giving kids the knowledge they need. If adults are still learning ways that our data can be sold, controlled, and snooped upon, they can’t school their kids in the dangers.
Beware the Digital Tattoo
The things we say and do online leave an indelible record: a digital tattoo. And for today’s children, having a questionable online history is an even greater risk than it is for their parents’ generation.
In 2013, Paris Brown was appointed the first Police and Youth Crime Commissioner in the UK at 17 years old. But racist and homophobic tweets were unearthed from several years prior, forcing her to step down from the role a few days after she was hired.
Brown claimed her tweets were simply “bravado”. But that didn’t prevent the negative media attention on the police force that chose her, and it was too late to prevent tabloid journalists running with the story. In the end, her foolish teenage tweeting cost her a high-profile job and a promising career.
From rash tweets to compromising photos, “digital tattoos” are indelible and can cause lasting harm.
Cyberbullying and revenge porn are also significant issues. Often, parents have no idea that these devastating activities are taking place. Just one compromising photo sent to the wrong friend could be impossible to erase from the internet. How would you feel if pictures of embarrassing or illegal activity are unearthed years later by your child’s employers, or even their own kids?
If children don’t have the knowledge to protect their privacy now, it could harm their job prospects, their mental health, and their ability to live happy and fulfilled lives. It’s up to adults to start taking the problem seriously and make privacy a core focus in the home.
Recognizing the Risks
The Girl Guides of the USA has recognized that children need better tuition on the privacy controls available to them. So has the FBI, which recently released a strongly-worded statement about so-called ‘smart toys’ which could be used to track children and spy on them.
There are numerous examples of data breaches affecting children. The 2015 VTech data leak short that companies are playing fast and loose with children’s’ personal details. (The Vtech hack revealed the names and addresses of 5 million parents and 6 million kids, as well as photographs of children taken with their VTech devices.)
Apps and websites are increasingly keen on tracking user locations, which is just one technology that’s potentially risky. And when presented with open and unsupervised Web access, kids will inevitably search for the things parents least want them to see. Even if this is done as a prank, or borne out of innocent curiosity, the sites they access will be routinely logged against the account holder’s name thanks to laws like the Investigatory Powers Act. That could leave the family open to government surveillance, criminal consequences, or even blackmail.
Parents needs to be aware of the risks their kids face online before they can help in avoiding them
It goes without saying that there are inherent dangers in the use of any social network without supervision, and there’s a danger that we allow our kids to assume that being watched or tracked in a normal part of life.
Legislation does exist to protect children; COPPA is one example. But there’s little point in creating these laws if the adults in charge are not doing their bit as well.
Schooling Kids in Privacy
The privacy guidance that schools impart can be basic at best. And if your child isn’t fortunate enough to be a Girl Scout, the new privacy badge will pass them by.
But there are online resources you can use to protect your family’s privacy and teach your children in a fun and interactive way:
- Digizen offers simple bite-size resources that help children understand digital citizenship in plain language
- CommonSense Media produces an online course on internet privacy for children
- Internet Matters provides useful guidance on ‘digital tattoos’, sexting, cyberbullying, and identity theft
- KidsHealth.org provides tailored resources for parents, kids, and teens
- The BBC’s WebWise has an easy-to-read guide on cookies, online advertising, and privacy.
All of these resources require one extra component: a parent or guardian that is informed about their own rights. If you allow your children to use YouTube or Facebook, or you allow them to join gaming networks, you owe it to them to ensure that privacy awareness is part of the deal, and that can only happen if you understand how to protect yourself.
If we don’t do more to tutor children on privacy, we could be putting their future prospects at risk. The consequences for the next generation are potentially huge. The time to act is now.