The Holyrood tech conference lights dimmed as keynote speaker Edward P Gibson took to the podium. The former FBI senior special agent and head of Microsoft UK, who I had invited across to Scotland from Washington DC, stunned to silence the hundreds of invited delegates by suddenly uttering: 'Do you know what your children are doing online, well do you?'
That was some years ago. Bringing things up to date, it's no surprise that when Scots parents were recently surveyed they said smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles were top of the festive family gift list of their 13- to-18-year-olds. The demand for such gadgets is also rising year-on-year for much younger children. Of course, 'tis the season to be jolly and I don't mean to be Scrooge-like, but make no apologies for striking a serious cyber note.
According to reports, levels of predatory behaviour towards children online have increased fifteenfold
compared with a decade ago, around the time Ed the Fed gave his Holyrood address. To be expected, there's a significant rise in online traffic at this time of year and this calls for extra efforts to ensure internet safety. Social media websites have become so much an integral part of everyday life but can prove especially dangerous when one's mind is on other matters. Such as ensuring your kids have a great time, which is perfectly understandable. The trouble is, according to device security specialist Atlas VPN, social media attacks have increased by 83% this year compared with 2020.
It's not all doom and gloom of course. Very young children, aged six to 10 years old, display a knowledge of digital technology that has shown to help improve language skills, social development and creativity. However, and irrespective of age, the unwitting adolescent browser can come across inappropriate and harmful content, or during an online group situation copying what older children might do. UNICEF cites what it describes as 'extraordinary benefits' offered up by the internet. However, with them come 'hazards' where, along with such offensive material, it has become easier for abusers to access and make contact with children and young people online. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) may not actually create crimes online but they enhance both their potential and scale.
Europol says, unfortunately, that child abusers have exploited 'increased unsupervised presence' of children online during the pandemic, fuelled by a sharp rise in encrypted messaging apps and social media platforms. Online gaming and communication, a marked reduction of real-life social and a normalisation of sexual behaviour online are marked out as prone to abuse by predators as they target their next victims, factors that create the conditions for the victimisation of children online.
The European Commission's law enforcement agency strongly urges parents to make their home a 'cyber safe stronghold' with the following sixfold action plan: Wi-Fi, always change the default router password; review tour apps' permissions and delete those you don't use; secure electronic devices with passwords, PIN or biometric information; install antivirus software on all
devices connected to the internet; choose strong and different passwords for email and social media accounts; review the privacy settings of social media accounts.
Covid-19 has fuelled a proliferation in cybercrime in all its forms. Criminals have been quick to abuse the current circumstances to increase their nefarious profits whilst spreading their tentacles to various areas, exposing vulnerabilities not only to individuals but also systems like hospitals ripe for ransomware groups taking advantage of widespread teleworking. Special mention is made of children spending a lot more time online, especially during lockdowns when 'grooming and dissemination' of self-produced explicit material have increased significantly.
Europol's head of its cybercrime centre, Edvardas Silkeris, stresses that only by working together can we create innovative ideas and practical approaches that can put a halt to cybercrime acceleration. It is essential to establish the environment and resources to do so. One alarming trend is the production of self-generated material younger children are exposed to, lured by offenders using fake identities on gaming platforms. Increasing numbers of children are falling into the trap of producing and sharing explicit material; also recording without the knowledge of the victim dissemination of live-streamed material. This represents another alarming threat – referred to as 'capping' – and peer-to-peer networks and the dark web remain key channels of abuse.
Thankfully we're in good hands. Edinburgh-headquartered Cyan Forensics has established a global reputation for its development of software tools that aid police to find evidence of child abuse or terrorist activity on a suspect's computer in just minutes. Chief executive, Ian Stevenson, says they aspire to a world 'where there is no place that harmful digital content can be easily hidden or shared'. For Cyan, it's all about providing technology to empower governments to achieve policy objectives in child protection, also reducing radicalisation and terrorist activity. Ian describes their work as involving 'Contraband Filter Technology' that's both inherently secure and can be applied to existing national databases of illegal material to be used for detection purposes.
Cyan's cutting-edge tech has been proven on-the-ground within UK and international law enforcement, placing digital forensic science investigative capabilities into the hands of frontline policing on-scene, in digital forensics labs and during the offender management process. It is no surprise that the company, as leader of a consortium, is one of five businesses awarded £85,000 by the UK Government through the 2021 Safety Tech Challenge Fund to develop innovative technologies towards keeping children safe within end-to-end encrypted environments. Cyan's new privacy assured matching system is to be tested, among others, by the University of Edinburgh, specifically the School of Informatics, whose world-class research is part of the National Research Centre on Protecting Citizens Online.
Two years ago, I wrote a Times
'Thunderer' column entitled Children of Our Digital Age Need a Chance to Reboot.
I argued that although digital kids are set to rule the networked world, such a special and surely inviolate position comes with it a health warning. Four-fifths of Generation Alpha, categorised as being born between 2010 and 2025, have a mobile or online presence by age two
. Just think of those grandchildren, still in nappies, crawling around tightly clutching their favourite tablet. Soon Generation Beta will come along, born 2025 to 2039.
Labels apart, no-one really knows what amount of a child's entire life is algorithmically classified, tracked, and harvested by Facebook, Google, Amazon, TikTok, Instagram, etc, for commercial ends, as such tech giants give lip service to privacy as long as billions of the social media dollar keep rolling in. And so the unfettered exploitation of adolescent online life continues to prove toxic, especially with uninvited attention from cyberbullies, trolls and predators. In another Times
'Thunderer', I quoted Ed the Fed, who now has a global role as investor and chief security officer for Secured Communications Inc out of DC. He gave a stark warning that the UK is in danger of falling 'two steps behind' in tackling a cybersecurity landscape where criminals and nation-state actors constantly seek new ways to pull off malicious attacks.
Jude McCorry, chief executive of the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, emphasises that Covid-related incidents apart, there has been an upward trajectory in cybercrime overall and a proactive approach is essential. Cyan's Ian Stevenson, also chair of UK industry standard body the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA), concludes: 'Thankfully governments are starting to realise just how important and urgent the situation is becoming... addressing online harms is still a relatively new idea, so the debate is yet to mature'. OSTIA calls for a 'growing cohort' of online safety tech companies to make a real contribution to deliver safer online experiences.
So, whatever time of the year it happens to be, above all, do all you can to ensure your child, or anyone else's come to that, doesn't become the next online victim.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'