Today is another of those 'Hallmark' IT security days; in the case of Tuesday the 11th of February 2014 that means 'Safer Internet Day'. I'm not going to start yet another rant about the pointlessness of this, and why every day should be Safer Internet Day. If you want to know my feelings, go and take a look at what I said in my article 'Data Privacy Day sucks elephants through a straw, and here's why...' a couple of weeks ago. Instead, I'm going to concentrate on just what those of us who are in the business of trying to educate and inform regarding data security and online privacy issues are up against.
Research undertaken by an independent UK broadband news site under the title of ‘Big Broadband Survey’ and questioning more than 7,000 Internet users about their online habits and opinions, has confirmed what most of us in the IT security business already know. When it comes to online anonymity and privacy issues the great British public, and to be honest the same will apply to most nationalities, don't really know what they want.
And that's the real problem; when people don't know what they want it's just about impossible to deliver it to them. Obvious really, but none the less worrying for it. It highlights how important education is, and although I said I would repeat myself I'm going to, how pointless a single day of focus that is soon forgotten and sooner ignored actually is.
Take anonymity for example. The survey showed that only 27% of those asked thought that the general right to anonymity is an important part of democratic society, and the 49% who thought online anonymity is important also thought everyone should have to register full details with a third party in case of abuse. So it would appear that only a tiny minority actually get the real importance of anonymity at all, and half of those asked have no real clue as to what it actually means.
What about network level filtering then, a subject of great interest in the UK after the government asked ISPs to start censoring what can and cannot be seen by the Internet using customer. While 78% of those asked believed that network-level filtering must be available to consumers, and 38% think this should be on an opt-out basis, pretty much the same number (40%) think it should be opt-in. Although I admit that this kind of censorship debate is always going to be contentious, I would have hoped that through informed debate which is driven by education rather than politically motivated media spin, there might be a less polarized conclusion. The fact that there isn't suggests to me that the debate has been lacking when it comes to rational facts. Note that I haven't said which side of the fence I'm sitting, as that's irrelevant right now, it's that the fence is so large that's the problem.
Which ties in nicely with parental knowledge, something the survey also looked at. Some 61% of those asked thought that the 'average parent' doesn't have enough information, knowledge and support to keep their children safe online. Something that I do agree with, and which is hard to argue sensibly against. That only 17% felt parents were adequately equipped to protect their children online is, however, a real shame and proof that we, as a society in general and those of is in the business of IT security in particular must do better. We are failing our families, and we are fooling ourselves if to suggest otherwise.
Sebastien Lahtinen, co-founder of thinkbroadband.com, agrees that the issue of online anonymity is a complex one but insists that Safer Internet Day is a key part of ensuring that everyone is aware of the tools available to protect themselves and their children online. Sorry Sebastien, but you are wrong. You are right, however, when you say that “in order to maintain the right to anonymity online whilst protecting users from online abuse, the role of website operators and social media companies in particular is likely to be under close scrutiny." Although, as your survey revealed, the British public tend to think that responsibility for protecting kids online should be split between parents (99%) and schools (99%). The role of the website operator and social media company, and broadband provider I hasten to add, is to provide the resources (and not just today) that enable parents and schools to educate themselves properly. Only when they both understand the role they have to play and the technology they are dealing with can the dangers start to be mitigated. Filtering and censorship at the ISP level is like cutting off not only your hand to treat a cut finger, but the rest of the arm and one of your legs as well.