Natural Born Hackers

It’s well understood that lots of kids, particularly as they get older, know their way around the internet. In many cases, they’re smarter than grownups. As digital natives born in the cyber age, the online world is about the same as the real world.

They are natural-born hackers, capable of becoming good or bad guys.
I speak from experience. I’m a 47-year-old information security practitioner who has worked as a tech journalist and as an employee for companies with advanced cybersecurity programs, including Akamai and now Sophos. Because of that, my family expects me to be THE expert. Sometimes I ask for trouble when I try to teach them a lesson — like grabbing a phone and writing on the owner’s Facebook timeline to demonstrate the value of having a security PIN on the phone. I’ve done that a few times during family get-togethers, grabbing a sister-in-law’s phone and typing into her Facebook account: “My brother-in-law Bill is the best!”

One day, my oldest son — then 14 — decided to give me a taste of my own medicine. He’d been watching me punch in my PIN for some time, and when the opportunity arose, he grabbed my phone, correctly entered the PIN and gleefully wrote on my Facebook timeline: “You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re Mr. Security in the family, but you let yourself get hacked by someone who can’t even drive a car.”

Score one for the offspring. What he didn’t realize was that in getting past my PIN, he could have accessed parts of my employer’s network. That was a sobering moment and an important lesson: With my own kids, aged 13 and 16, I’m in a good position to mold them into tomorrow’s good guys — those who use their skills to help build a more perfect cyber defense. But kids without proper guidance could grow up to become tomorrow’s online villains.

Common-sense parenting
The key for us grownups is knowing how to steer them toward the light. The good news is that you don’t have to work in my industry to make a positive impact. Most of this falls under parental common sense — teaching them right from wrong and instilling virtues of kindness, love and personal responsibility. There are areas of parenting where I often come up short. Like swearing in front of the kids. I lost that battle a long time ago. Or vaping in front of them. Some bad habits are harder to hide than others.

But since they make fun of my salty tongue and vices, and are heavily involved in Boy Scouts, charity projects and have generous hearts, I have faith that we’re getting the most important things right. Beyond common sense, there are other things we need to be vigilant about. Here are some examples:

Keeping watch
We need to keep a close eye on what our kids are doing on those iPads and gaming platforms. Are they harmlessly engaged in Minecraft or reading digitized Harry Potter books? Or are they looking at sites that peddle porn and extremist views, learning how to spread hate and, if they’re more technically advanced, learning how to spoof accounts and steal? As parents, we have to watch these activities closely. Anne Reeks, who writes a computing column for the Houston Chronicle, describes this process in a article as stepping into your kids’ cyberworld.

Privacy matters
Another tip in her article is to teach kids how to protect their privacy. As Reeks wrote: While they won’t fully understand the consequences of revealing personal information online, you should still make sure your children know:
– Never to give their name, phone number, email address, password, postal address, school, or picture without your permission
– Not to open email from people they don’t know
– Not to respond to hurtful or disturbing messages
– Not to get together with anyone they “meet” online.

Monitor their gaming
As I’ve mentioned, one of the things to watch when you step into their online world is the gaming they engage in. When I was at Akamai, I co-authored the quarterly security version of the company’s “State of the Internet” report. Quarter after quarter we saw that gaming was one of the industries most affected by cybercrime. Here, the goal of those launching attacks is to cheat, knocking down other gamers in order to get ahead of them. If your kid is writing code for that purpose, you may not be able to tell. But you might be able to wear them down by repeating the “cheaters never win” mantra.

Limit their time and restrict their location
Reeks offered another suggestion I agree with wholeheartedly and try to practice at home: Limit the time kids can spend online, and keep the main family computer in a central spot. In our house, the kids are allowed an hour a day, though I admit that it’s not always easy to enforce. For kids who want to go past their allotted time, there’s no better scenario than a parent distracted by work who won’t see what’s happening until it’s too late. The gaming they do tends to be too complex for their tablets, so they have to use the family laptop. We always keep that laptop in the same room in the same spot.

Keep bookmarked
As we in the security industry often say, the threat landscape is constantly changing. Therefore, it’s important to keep up on your reading. In my real job, I write about the latest threats from a technical perspective, and my audience ranges from consumers to businesses. But for a kid-specific perspective, I recommend The site is constantly updated with articles on everything from teaching your kids about cyberbullying to weeding out the fake news in their feeds.

As I mentioned earlier, parents aren’t perfect, and we can’t protect our kids from every conceivable danger. But if we remain vigilant, there’s much we can do to steer them in the right direction.


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