Educating Your Family on Technological Safety and Security: An Interview with Damon Kohler

By Jordan Sapir

There I am, watching my obligatory Friday night documentary on Netflix. On the menu tonight: The Deep Web.

It was my first time watching it in its entirety, yet I found myself flabbergasted at the amount of secrecy, crime and danger it showed lurking on the World Wide Web.

Am I the only one who is in the dark when it comes to protecting myself online? I can imagine I’m not the only mother of young children who would like to know the facts. What better way to get our questions answered then by asking a professional.

Luckily, Über Mom Laura Kohler is married to just the right man to help.

Here to answer our questions and dispel some fallacies about Internet security and technological hazards is Damon Kohler, a software engineer at Google Munich.

So Damon, we all have that friend who over-shares on social media. Who checks in wherever they go. A friend who shares overly personal information online and the family who posts nude pictures of their children in the bathtub. In your personal opinion, what is the line between being social and being vulnerable?

I think everyone needs to figure that out for themselves. You could argue that not everyone has the information they need to make an informed decision, though. It’s important that everyone is aware of exactly who can see what. For example, it may surprise people to discover that their photos frequently contain coordinates (aka geotagging). So that cute picture of your dog in your profile picture may disclose where you live. Thankfully, Facebook automatically removes location information from the photos you share. Other platforms may not, so be sure to check!

As for who can see the things you share, privacy settings can be confusing. Many social forums allow you to view your profile as other people. So you can see how the content on your profile changes depending on whether the person viewing it is a stranger or a friend. Failing that, you can try viewing your information in an incognito or a private browsing window as a way to see what a complete stranger would have access to.

Tangential to online security, sharing nude pictures of children in the bathtub can cause legal issues and should be avoided.

Now that we have a clearer notion of what is sensible to share and what leaves us vulnerable, what do you consider to be the worst dangers lurking on the web and in technology based media? What could happen, for example, to a person who shares specific life details, such as their children’s’ ages or to teenagers who share their exact locations and personal data?

I’m not a criminologist. But my wife is!

Seriously, this is a criminology question. From a technical standpoint, the worst thing you can do is not change the default password on your internet connected devices (always do that!) and use the same password on multiple websites (never do that!). If you have trouble remembering your passwords (and you probably should if they’re random enough), use a password manager like Chrome, LastPass, or Dashlane.

It’s not a good idea to have one password for sites you don’t care about (e.g. that throw away account you made to buy dog treats) and another for sites you do (e.g. your bank and Facebook). When the dog biscuit site gets hacked, all other sites you used that password on are at risk. All together, that information could be used to make a more serious breach of your security.

Whenever possible, use the “login with Google or Facebook” buttons and make sure you’ve enabled 2-factor authentication on both Google and Facebook (where it’s called Login Approval). Stop reading, go enable 2-factor authentication and then come back.

Also, don’t worry. It’s ok to let your password manager save the password for Google and Facebook. It’s probably a good thing since it will get you out of the habit of typing your password. You’re less likely to get tripped up by phishing that way.

(From Laura:)

Above all else, it’s important that your children are aware that dangers exist, so that they will be wary. If they feel uncomfortable in an online interaction, they should feel that they can always come to you for help. Listen to what they’re saying, inform yourself of the dangers, and contact their school or the police if you feel it’s necessary.

Now, by far the most commonly committed cyber crimes are financial ones. There are so many variants of different scams that often it’s hard to keep track. Everything from the classic Nigerian Prince emails, to the new Tinder and Grindr based “get the victim to send naked photos and blackmail them with their release” scam. There are websites that sell popular products at ridiculously low prices, and just collect the credit card details of those people who try to purchase them. If something seems fishy or too-good-to-be-true, it probably is. If you’re worried, a quick Google search should tell you whether an offer is legitimate.

As far as sharing your young child’s age, I actually think this is fairly harmless, if this is the only information you’re sharing. There’s not much that a potential aggressor can do with just that information. The more you share (location, pictures, even your child’s school), the more vulnerable you are. Think about what questions you would answer from the nosy Oma on the tram. How old is she? Sure. Where does she go to Krippe? Creepy.

Teenagers especially put themselves at risk, more than anything, of cyberbullying. Sharing a location-tagged photo or checking in will let bullies know where they are in real life. This can make cyberbullying, which is terrible in its own right and which has actually been responsible for the tragic suicides of teens, spill over into the real world and culminate in actual physical violence. Parents, please talk to your children about cyberbullying, and ask them to come to you if they are ever involved in it, as perpetrators or victims, or even bystanders. Pass on what you know to the victim’s parents or to their school. Don’t be shy or feel that you are “tattling.” You may be saving the life of someone else’s child.

However, let’s not forget the horrific shooting that happened here in Munich last year. The perpetrator lured some of his victims to the location by using a fake Facebook profile and pretending that he was a fellow teenage girl who wanted to treat some contemporaries to a free burger. This is an absolute worst case scenario, but there are other dangers. Sometimes it’s hard to determine whether the new friend is another teenager, or instead a scammer, catfisher, or something more sinister.

Sharing personal information online, even under an alias, can also be dangerous. If there is enough information about your real identity available online, and you somehow make an online enemy, this person can reveal your true name, address, email, and social media identities publicly. This is commonly known as doxing. Doxing often leads to hate mail, nasty tweets and Facebook stalking, or even “swatting.” Swatting is especially dangerous. The perpetrator will call the police, stating that the victim is at home, doing something illegal and potentially very dangerous, whereupon the police send a SWAT team to raid the victim’s home, putting the victim and the victim’s family at risk.

I have chosen not to give my children an online identity until they are old enough to decide for themselves what they feel comfortable sharing in the online social realm. Many parents can’t understand that and feel that sharing photos of their children online is harmless. Would you concur?

It’s clear that social media isn’t a passing fad. It’s growing rapidly and our culture is changing to accommodate new information vectors. I only share pictures of my daughter with people I trust (i.e. not friends of friends) on platforms I trust. I use Google+ because I feel that I can trust Google, but you should choose the platform that works best for you. Check your privacy settings and make an informed decision.

I was speaking with a good friend whose son was recently required to take a 3 hour course on electronic intelligence, on the ins and outs of what not to share online, who it is safe to share personal information with, and on cyberbullying. What would your course curriculum be for a teenager who needs to protect themselves?

I would cover the basics of hacking and social engineering. Then I would talk about how both are used for good and evil. I don’t think there’s much to teach about prevention, persay. Awareness is the key.


True or false?

Hackers can hack into your children’s video monitors film them, speak with them and record them unknowingly.

True, but it’s really unlikely if you take basic precautions (remember to change the default password!). It’s far more likely that your DVR or baby monitor is used to launch a DDoS attack or send spam. Unless you have reason to believe you’re likely to be a target of nation-state hacking, just change the default password and buy from reputable companies.

Once you delete a picture off the Internet it is gone forever.

Maybe, maybe not. Someone could have made a copy and reposted it. Otherwise, reputable companies have policies in place to ensure that user data is deleted promptly and completely on request.

Private content on social media sites such as Facebook (e.g. private groups and messages) is safe because no one else can access it.

True. You’re much more likely to get bit by bad privacy settings than bugs or hacking on reputable platforms. Privacy can be difficult to get right. Be careful and convince yourself that you’re sharing with who intend to. Don’t assume it’s working out of the box.

Corporations monitor your activities online for targeted marketing.

True. That’s how the internet pays for itself. Put another way, this is the price you pay for using the internet.

Targeted marketing isn’t a bad thing. It just means you see more content that you’re interested in instead of advertisements for something arbitrary.

Inferring information from your habits and data can be a power for good.

There is no need to monitor your children’s online activity if you use parental controls.

Parental controls are all about monitoring your children’s activity and should be used that way. It’s just a tool to help your guide your children through the fantastic and vast landscape of technology. You should always take the time to also talk to your children about their time online.

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