It's a different world for our kids these days. Most of us grew up in a time when internet security wasn't even a topic for discussion. But for our kids, privacy and information security are important considerations. With that in mind, I wrote a letter to my daughter.
To my daughter
Hi, it's Dad! Writing you this note reminds me of similar notes I wrote to your big sister, more than a decade ago. Back then, I scribbled with a pen on a pad next to the coffeemaker, where I knew she'd see it.
But today I'm writing to you on an iPad. I'm at your big brother's house, and this note will travel through his in-house Wi-Fi, over his cable service to his ISP - and finally to your iPhone, there at school. Ten years ago, the note I wrote your sister was just between me and her, or possibly another member of our family, in our house. But this note? Heaven only knows who might be able to read it, if they wanted to.
I have a digital daughter
You and your generation have grown up in an era where the rapid exchange of information - mostly very personal information - is so common that you don't think twice about it. When I was 13 years old, the texts that you and your friends pass back and forth contain information that would have gone through several agonizing drafts before being passed along in the form of a folded paper football.
You and I and our friends, family and others all now exist, out there on the internet, as chunks of personal information we've tossed into the digital sea, often without thinking. There's a "digital" me and a "digital" you, and I'm writing you this note so that you'll give the digital you some thought, today and always. Why? Because that digital universe your other self inhabits is shared by just about everyone, and that digital you leads back to the real you.
We've talked about identity theft, so you know what that means, even though you're a little young to worry about it. But I can remember a time not so long ago when we didn't trust the Internet enough to buy something from a website with a credit card. Today, it's how everyone shops. We don't think twice, and that's all the more reason to think about the Digital Me: someone can learn everything about me, become me, take my money away, steal my identity - and the problem is getting worse, not better. Helping you become aware of this is a way of fighting back.
One thing you (and every other internet user) should already be in the habit of doing is securing the computers and devices you normally use with passwords. More than that, never store those passwords on the devices themselves.
Written in ink
Your identity is not the only security risk out there in the digital universe. All of that texting and blogging and tweeting you're doing is there to stay. The internet isn't written in pencil, it's written in ink, which means that anything you put out there is permanent - possibly even when you think you've erased it.
That may not seem like a big deal today, but it's something that should always be in the back of your mind. You should think of what you post on the internet as words you would say in someone's living room, with many people around, where you would be maintaining some level of politeness and discretion. At this point, hundreds of thousands of relationships and more than a few political careers have been obliterated, uncountable public figures have been embarrassed or humiliated, because someone sent something out into the internet without thinking.
This is social behavior - but it, too, is a kind of computer security.
Renting vs. owning
Even though my generation built and populated the internet, it is your generation that will inherit it. And so it falls up on us to teach you about security, and to make certain you understand the miracles you take for granted. You know, for instance, what "phishing" is - people trying to fool you with authentic-sounding emails or web pages in order to fool you into submitting personal information or giving up a password. You should always understand each new Internet scam or fraud as they emerge, because new ones will always be up ahead waiting for you.
But some dangers are being built into the internet itself. For instance, you've heard about "the cloud," and you know it's a place where your personal music collection can be stored, so that your music follows you wherever you go, from iPhone to iPad to whatever device you're holding.
Well, the cloud is simple: physically, it's the same thing we have at home - servers, where data is stored. Out in the world, the difference between "cloud" servers and traditional servers is that "cloud" servers are rented, while traditional servers are owned. Think of my library, at home: since my books are in my house, I have complete control over them. That's the same as a traditional server. But if my books were in a rental storage unit, they'd be under someone else's control: I could only get to them by using that other someone's security controls. That's how it is with your data and files, in the cloud: someone else will always be in control. That, too, is something you should always think about.
Big Brother's watching
I'll wrap up this note, daughter, with a little bit of paranoia. Recent events in our country have shown us that our personal privacy is something that can be taken away from us, if we're not careful. It's not just the hackers, out to steal our credit card numbers, that we need to watch out for; our own government has the power and the technical ability to capture the digital you.
When I was your age, we read an important book about what can happen when a government watches its people all the time. Today, they don't need to actually watch us - all they have to watch is our digital doppelgangers.
Of all the computer security tips that you (and everyone else) should be made aware of, this is the one that's most important to keep in the back of your mind. We who live in this country are supposed to be in charge of ourselves, deciding for ourselves. Ultimately, we make the rules. If we're going to build a future that includes the great digital universe that gives us so much fun and convenience, we need to be careful to make laws that protect our Internet privacy and freedom - and oppose politicians and government organizations that oppose those freedoms. Always remember this!
Think about these things, and let's talk about them later.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.