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Safer Internet Day prompts smart online choices

Headlines continually remind us about the state of internet safety: massive data breaches; elaborate phishing scams; and the dangerous world of cyberbullying.

“Together for a better internet”
Safer Internet Day started in the EU in 2004 in order to promote safer behaviour online. The initiative works to emphasize the need for safer internet use, especially for younger users. The yearly event is now held in almost 140 countries, and brings together a host of organizations to emphasize education and awareness around safe behaviour online.

In a recent survey of Google’s users, one in five Canadians gave themselves a failing grade when it came to their personal internet safety. And only 30 percent of respondents said they use two-factor authentication, one of the easiest methods of boosting your security online.

To mark Safer Internet Day, Google distributed some basic security tips for internet users:

1) Keep your software up-to-date

2) Use unique passwords — or even a password manager

3) Set up a recovery phone number or email address

4) Protect your accounts with 2-Step Verification

5) Take the Google Security Checkup — if you’re a Google user, that is.

Evolving threats
Brett Caraway, Associate Professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, at the University of Toronto Mississauga spoke in an interview with Digital Journal about why the need for better internet safety is only increasing in 2019.

“As the Internet has become an increasingly ubiquitous component of our daily lives, there are a variety of concerns that have arisen. Chief among these have been concerns about cyberbullying, online threats, defamation, social isolation and vague concerns about addictive behaviours.”

The safety and security of our data is a key concern, said Caraway.

“While it’s difficult to point to just one potential threat, I would argue that data security may be among the most serious issues. Data security is implicated is so many relationships — everything from banking, shopping, healthcare and democratic governance. This is why breaches of security can have such severe repercussions in everything from personal privacy to democratic elections.”

Young people face hightened threat of abuse online
These developing threats often take on a particularly ugly aspect in relation to young people’s actions online. As reported by UNICEF, digital harassment affects 70.6 percent of young people (between 15 and 24) online around the globe. This comes in a variety of forms, including cyberbullying.

“We’ve heard from children and young people from around the globe and what they are saying is clear: The Internet has become a kindness desert,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “That’s why this Safer Internet Day, UNICEF is inviting everyone, young and old, to be kind online, and calling for greater action to make the Internet a safer place for everyone.”

And those elements of cybercullying can remain online forever, necessitating better education about the dangers of content shared on social media and online.

Caraway detailed the many ways that children find themselves is unsafe situations online, and the kinds of threats parents should be aware of.

“Cyberbullying, online stalking, and invasion of privacy are all things that parents must pay attention to. I think that it is critical for parents to maintain a transparent and open dialogue with their children about their online activities. It’s very difficult for children today to find safe harbour from social media forums. These unwanted and aggressive forms of behaviour follow children home, amplifying the potential impacts on young people who are still in their developmental years.”

So who should be the agent of change in this matter of internet safety? The users themselves, or the organizations proliferating internet services and features?

“Typically, I think the onus to protect children should fall on the firm or organization providing the social forum or technology in question,” said Caraway. “But social media firms have to strike a difficult balance of providing their users with a space where they feel safe to participate while not overly impinging on the ability of others to speak and express themselves freely.”

Safety encourages innovation
Google is taking this issue of safety to heart. The company is working through its Chrome browser to better inform users about their security choices online, and to prompt them to be more aware about the sites they visit.

Adrienne Porter Felt, Senior Engineering Manager at Google, discussed the need for safety in Google’s products in an interview.

“Security and privacy, and in general safety on the web, are a foundation for people’s willingness to use technology. On Chrome, security has been one of the core principles since the browser was started. The reason why that’s been the case is that if people don’t feel safe and comfortable using the technology, then no matter what other features you build, no matter what else you invent, people might not be willing to experiment with it.”

Felt indicated that Chrome UI has been improved to encourage safer user behaviour, including browser bar alerts when users access an HTTP website — which is inferior in terms of privacy and security compared to HTTPS, the widely recognized secure encryption of URLs. Chrome is also working on building new types of notifications to warn people about homograph attacks — phishing websites impersonating sites that users are trying to visit.

Google has also created a password checkup extension for Chrome that can help you determine if your current passwords are up to date and sufficiently secure.

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