Friday, 27 March 2015

How to be safe

Safety helmet by jonataI gave a talk a few weeks ago at a youth club.  The talk turned into a discussion session, actually to my relief. I think that was more valuable than me talking at them for 20 minutes.  The talk/chat was about online safety and I didn’t want to say the usual stuff (passwords, stranger danger etc.) because I figured they’d have had talks like that before. They had and were pretty sensible (at least in principle).  So I talked instead about some of the wider issues of safety that they might not previously have considered.  For example, I stressed the fact that we’re responsible for other people’s privacy and safety as well as our own, telling a story about parents spying on their child’s phone discovering someone else’s secret and making their situation worse.  I think some were surprised that their communications might not be as secret as they thought and that the safe spaces in which they’re chatting might not be safe after all, even when infiltrators are genuinely well-meaning.

We spoke about different kinds of safety and what modes of communication might be appropriate for each.  For example, it might be in a child’s interest for her parents to have access to her phone records when absolutely necessary.  A child might accept this but should understand that some conversations should not take place using that phone.  She should understand that certain activities might be out of the question while she’s carrying her phone…. but that she’s putting herself in danger of a different kind if she doesn’t have it with her.  Then we spoke about some tools we can all use to help us keep safe. 

It was a bit haphazard but I think I got a few useful messages across.  At one point, the supervisor asked for top tips about staying safe online.  I think she wanted me to talk about passwords and stranger danger but what I said instead was this:

To be safe online, we need to be three things:

  • We need to be proactive.  We’re too used to thinking of security as something that lives on our computers and not something we need to be an active participant in.  I pointed to some of the things we’d already talked about as examples of proactive safety.
  • We need to be educators. Since our safety depends on the actions of others, we need to evangelise, correct myths and give practical demonstrations to our peers, our family and sometimes those in authority.
  • We need to be activists. Much of our safety is in the hands of our government and the companies providing the services we use.  We need to show companies and governments that we want to take back some control.  I suspect that most of us will still pay for some services by allowing surveillance, providing we understand what data is being collected and what is being done with it.  The rest of us will probably be happy to pay for services if they are surveillance-free. But first, we need that option.  And we need to show government that breaking encryption and other unwise moves will make the internet less safe for everyone.

I think this was good advice, your mileage may well vary.

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