Cybersmartness makes the web safe for children

The pandemic has been one of the most transformative events we have seen in decades. Even as we anticipate a return to some semblance of pre-Covid life, it has caused lasting changes in the way we work, study, communicate and do business. Having to “work, learn and play from home” has now become a new norm. It also means that our addiction to the internet and all things digital is now at its peak.

With extensive access to the Internet, we are exposed to an unfiltered digital world where we are highly vulnerable to cybercrime. Our students have been forced to move away from a traditional education system where classrooms have migrated to the cloud. However, the challenges to their security have not been sufficiently thought through.

As technology democratizes education for all, low- and middle-income families have had to invest in devices to ensure access to education for their children.

Many of them opt for family computing devices such as shared PCs or shared smartphones. Children who had limited internet access are now immersed in the cyber world and are unaware of the threats they expose. Parents and teachers also share this concern.

The shift to cloud-based learning also means the sector is now more at risk. In fact, cybercriminals choose schools and students as easy targets because unsecured devices and networks, misconfigured or default passwords, and outdated systems with missing patches make them easy to exploit. There is also the threat of cyber predators with fake identities who target students in vulnerable age groups.

Understand possible threats

It becomes imperative for students and parents to first understand the possible threats they may face if they want to protect themselves. These include exposure to inappropriate content, online abuse such as cyberbullying, cyberstalking, abuse of chat rooms, and harassment in forums and gaming communities.

Then there are cases of identity theft, fake profiles, impersonation, financial scams, malware, mobile-based malware, malicious advertisements, malicious messaging based on social networks, fake applications, takeover of webcams and attacks based on social engineering (SMS, Vishing, phishing attacks) and ransomware attacks. Second, they must then learn to identify red flags and deal with them effectively.

A multi-stakeholder approach where parents, students, civil society and government work together to solve the problem with an educational framework on cyber threats and solutions is essential. Awareness doesn’t mean high-end technical know-how, it just involves basic “cyber-hygiene practices”.

Parents need to be careful

As a parent, some basic things will go a long way in protecting against online threats. One can start by securing the devices, installing good antivirus software and updating it regularly. Wi-Fi and personal hotspots must be configured securely. Password sharing, default passwords, and easy-to-guess passwords will lead to your data being compromised and should therefore be discouraged.

Privacy settings such as not sharing location details, identity details, contact numbers or access to content, images and files on your systems should be enabled. Set up parental controls, control your children’s foreign contacts in the online world, create user account passwords for each device and also set up separate user accounts on shared devices.

Governments and private IT players can collaborate to play an important role in creating initiatives to deliver e-learning to students, parents and teachers. Strong cybersecurity policies and systems to address grievances must be in place. One example is the online cybercrime reporting portal that has been launched.

A collaborative approach is needed to ensure our children are cyber-smart, cyber-educated and well-equipped to deal with the threats of the digital world which is here to stay.

(The author is a cybersecurity expert)