I enjoy traveling to new places and meeting new people. Over the last few years, I’ve been to Mexico, Canada, England, Scotland, Belgium, Denmark, Belize, Honduras and a few more. A few months from now, I’m going back to Europe, this time to Spain, Germany and the tiny island of Malta. Something I always keep in mind when I’m visiting unfamiliar places (including here in the U.S.) is that while people all over the world have a lot in common, some places are safer than others.
Honduras, for example, has the highest rate of intentional homicide (murder) in the world (90.4 per 100,000). Denmark, on the other hand, has one of the lowest (0.8 per 100,000), according to the United Nations Global Study on Homicide. Do I take extra precautions in Central America compared to Northern Europe? Absolutely.
But something else I always remember is that bad things can happen even in the safest places. Statistics aren’t very comforting if it was your loved one who was the one and only victim of murder in Iceland in 2012. I feel pretty safe in my own suburban neighborhood in Texas, but I still stay alert and lock my doors at night.
Most people aren’t daredevils. You probably wouldn’t go wandering the alleys of urban Chicago or Miami alone at night, and you certainly wouldn’t send your children to play there. But ordinary parents turn their kids lose on the digital equivalent of the back roads of Belize City every day. Teachers allow children to take off, alone and unprotected, for parts unknown during school hours. Of course I’m talking about unfiltered web surfing that can expose young people to dangers just as real as those that lurk in the shadows of big cities and the jungles of Central America.
The Internet is the greatest educational tool to come along in my lifetime. It rates right up there with the printing press in terms of furthering the spread of knowledge. It’s still amazing to people like me, who didn’t grow up taking it for granted, that we can go online and from our homes or classrooms have immediate access to more information than we used to have sitting in a big university library. I love having such a wonderful research tool at my fingertips and I often think, “If only I’d had this when I was in school, what fantastic papers I could have written.”
The Internet has also morphed into an important social venue. In the “olden days,” kids learned about other cultures by painstakingly handwriting letters to pen pals in exotic countries and waiting weeks for a reply. Today, young people routinely become fast friends with others half-way around the globe, exchanging text and photos and making audio and video calls on a daily basis – and it’s an activity not just reserved for the wealthy.
But along with all these benefits come a myriad of dangers. Just as there are “bad parts of town” populated by drug pushers and other criminals, there are bad web sites, full of pornography, hateful propaganda, and lies that can seduce young, naïve minds. In the same way it can be easy to accidentally cross a street and find yourself in a very different kind of neighborhood, these sites are sometimes linked to more benign sites (often in comments or other user-input sections) or they can pop up in a legitimate web search.
Even worse are those sites that deliberately masquerade as innocent children’s resources to lure young victims in. Con men set to take advantage of kids’ gullibility and inexperience are bad enough; sexual predators are worse. These types of cybercriminals construct “traps” – sites designed to appeal to youngsters’ common interests such as music, video games, or popular TV shows – and use them to collect contact information so they can “get to know” the kids and earn their trust.
The problem is rampant, and many efforts to address it are ongoing. In the U.S., the federal government recognized the potential for abuse back in 2000 and passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), amidst a good bit of controversy from civil libertarians over the censorship aspect. The legislation requires that schools and libraries receiving federal funding adopt Internet safety policies that include technological controls capable of blocking/filtering of Internet content that’s deemed to be harmful to minors.
Protecting children is a big priority, but adults are at risk on the Internet, too – and they can put the companies for which they work at risk when they venture onto malicious web sites using company computers (or, in a BYOD situation, their own devices while connected to the company network). Businesses aren’t required by law to implement web filtering the way schools and libraries are, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take it upon themselves to do so. Monitoring and filtering web usage can protect organizations and their users from many of the “cyberstranger dangers” that are out there, and potentially save millions of dollars in all the costs associated with data breaches.
For more information on the cyberstranger threat, CIPA and a multi-layered approach to web filtering and Internet monitoring, see GFI’s white paper Beware of Cyberstrangers.