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Friday, February 10, 2006

Personal Safety in the Interactive Age

We've seen it in the news all too often. In fact, one major television network news magazine has been running "sting" operations. We know, in the abstract, that predators lurk on the internets. Chat rooms, BBS, IM ... these are all ways that the malicious can connect with the innocent.

Lately, though, there have been more stories about how teens, pre-teens, and even twenty-somethings put themselves at even more risk. They do this by joining the interconnected online community in an affirmative way. It's not just the direct-contact IM dangers of (dare I say?) the old days. Sites like MySpace, FaceBook, Xanga, and similar sites allow kids to blog, post pictures, and put up data about themselves. These social network sites have become fertile ground for predators, a veritable shopping mall full of vulnerable prey. Let me be clear up front: I AM NOT BLAMING THE SITES. NOR am I blaming kids!



The fact is, the most innocuous data can arm a criminal with information that makes it easier for them to "socially engineer" ("soc," pronounced "soash") their way into a kid's online life, and eventually, step from the virtual to the vulnerable.

On these social sites, kids blog their lives. They post about what they like and hate about school, parents, activities, hobbies, music, movies, and more. These are literally invitations for other, like-minded kids to comment, strike up a conversation, and develop an online relationship. But it's not hard to soc a blog. It's all too easy for the nefarious to show interest in and compatibility with a victim's postings, luring the unwitting target into an online relationship that can last for weeks or months in order to gain their confidence, before culminating in an innocent-sounding "let's meet at the mall" invitation.

Some kids even make it way easy for the less patient deviant, posting things like their address, their after-school schedule, their plans for the weekend. Other kids are more careful about what they post, but it doesn't mean they're not at risk. Any little piece of information-- what you thought about the latest Harry Potter movie or your favorite song-- can be leveraged as a starting point for conversation or correspondence. Eventually, the evildoers gain enough information to lock in on their victim. Indeed, for many of these deviants, the whole process-- what amounts to virtual stalking of their prey-- is part of the attraction.

Their goal isn't just to find and "hook up" with a kid, they also want the intimacy and empathy that comes from learning everything they can about their victims.

In recent months, schools have been cracking down on student blogs and other public forums where students may be exposing dangerous (and apparently harmless) information. But sites like MySpace and FaceBook-- and again, let's not blame the sites here-- give students an outlet that doesn't require their users' school's servers. Teachers and administrators can't filter what students post on these public sites; most often they're not even aware that a student has a page there. Parents are often not sufficiently knowledgable or are unaware of their child's online personna altogether.

The solution is to educate kids, early, often, and in depth, about the dangers of personal information they post online. We can't force kids to abstain from online contact with others; but we can teach them about how to do it more safely, how to protect themselves, how to avoid some of the danger.

Online safety needs to be part of every curriculum. We wouldn't let our kids post personal ads on billboards along the highway; we have to teach them that online social sites are equally unacceptable. We spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours teaching our kids how to run applications on a computer. We've taught them how to operate a car, but we haven't taught them to drive. We teach them about the human-computer interface, but we haven't taught them about the human-human realities of the online world. We need to put their newfound computer skills in context; the consequences of doing otherwise are simply too dire. And that's NOT cool.

How will it shake out? Comment this blog, and let's see where the conversation leads.
For great news, views, and resources for educators, check out The Balance Sheet p
ublished by South-Western, a Thomson company. Trusted news for educators for several decades, several miles ahead.

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