Q&A: Founder of ‘Savvy Cyber Kids’ on Cybersecurity Best Practices

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Technology is a part of our lives but it should not take over our lives – or ever compromise our children’s online safety.

Because October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM), and in part to raise public awareness of the dangers of identity theft, we recently chatted with author and technology guru Ben Halpert.

Although his day job is in the security and privacy fields, several years ago he launched Savvy Cyber Kids, a nonprofit to help keep children safer online. Last year Savvy Cyber Kids joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s STOP.THINK.CONNECT.. campaign’s national network, forming a partnership that will promote cybersecurity awareness to children nationwide.

His organization focuses on bringing the shared message of cyber responsibility and education to preschool and elementary school educators and administrators. Parents can also use the resources he creates to make sure they are raising knowledgeable and empowered digital citizens. Ben has published three books in his “Savvy Cyber Kids at Home” series (The Family Gets a Computer, Defeat of the Cyber Bully, and Adventures Beyond the Screen).

We recently chatted with Ben about how and why he launched Savvy Cyber Kids, his thoughts on BYOD policies at schools, and lots of other topics related to keeping kids safe online.

PRIVATE WiFi: Savvy Cyber Kids is a resource for parents and teachers to start teaching cyber ethics topics to children as young as three, but why did you create it and how has it changed over the years?

Ben Halpert: I started presenting to parent groups at schools and houses of worship in 2002. After a few years of conducting theses sessions, I noticed an unfortunate commonality between them. After each event, a parent would approach me and tell me or show me what their son or daughter had posted online; it was all personal information about the family and the child in question.

I took a step back and thought there must be something we can do to help out these children that are making these online mistakes. So I started researching various teaching methods and came up with the concept of creating a curriculum to start educating the world’s children starting as early as possible regarding cyber ethics concepts such as security, privacy, bully response, screen-time balance, and more.

Since the launch in 2007, I have been learning and adapting to the changing environment we live in to keep Savvy Cyber Kids relevant to today’s parents, teachers, and children. Savvy Cyber Kids is a one-man shop with people I can call on for specific help as needed. I am supported by an amazing advisory board, industry colleagues, along with friends and family.

PWF: You released The Savvy Cyber Kids at Home: The Family Gets a Computer in 2010. Can you tell me how that came about? What motivated you to write the book?

BH: Once I delved into the various methods of how to teach different concepts, I decided to focus on our youngest learners. If you can teach core concepts at an early age, those concepts will more often than not be retained as a child matures.

PWF: Do you ever do readings at schools? How do you spread the message to teachers so they can teach kids in their classes about online safety?

BH: Author visits with readings are one of my favorite things to do! Some of my other favorite activities are presenting and discussing cyber topics with teachers, administrators, and parents. I am always appreciative of an introduction to a school. The best referral source I have are parents and teachers that find out about our books and services at conferences and while searching online.

PWF: Speaking of schools, what are your thoughts on BYOD policies at schools?

BH: BYOD policies at schools are the evolution of consumer-focused technology into every aspect of our lives. Teachers are integrating technology into the daily activities of their students, and for older students, BYOD makes sense. BYOD may make an IT administrator’s job more difficult than a traditional lab environment, but change is a constant with technology.

PWF: How do you feel about the FCC’s planned $2B push to spread WiFi in schools and libraries across the nation?

BH: Promoting greater access to information across the nation is a great thing. However, I am hopeful there will be some thought into security and privacy requirements for a broad WiFi deployment.

PWF: Do you think schools do enough to encrypt sensitive data over wireless networks? What would be the most important thing schools could do to protect both students and their devices?

BH: All schools and districts are different. Some are staffed with experienced IT administrators that have a security background, while others struggle to get by with using basic technology tools. One issue schools have is that they are often forced into using a specific application or tool because it is mandated. Each application has its own set of security and privacy controls that must be managed. There are many applications that still use the students Social Security number as their login ID. The most important thing to focus on is protecting personal information belonging to the students and the staff. The best way to provide such protection is via proven encryption technologies coupled with strong authentication.

PWF: Do you find that it’s easier to spread the “savvy cyber kid” message to parents or kids? Who is more receptive and open to your insights?

BH: In general, kids are more receptive to the message of being a good cyber citizen, especially young children. Many parents feel overwhelmed by all the technology and the pace of change that exists. They know they need to do something, but are confused as to the “what.” That is where Savvy Cyber Kids come in – there are many resources available, including a free video series at RaisingSavvyCyberKids.org. Once parents start reading the Savvy Cyber Kids books to their children, they often feel more at ease discussing privacy topics with their kids as they mature.

PWF: What are a few things that parents are doing “wrong” in front of their kids, or on behalf of their kids’ safety, when it comes to online security?

Parents need to stop over-sharing information about their children and the family as a whole. While a parent is making the decision — perhaps ill-informed — to share their latest vacation adventures or their child’s latest growth milestone, the child has no choice in the matter. Parents may be creating privacy and security issues for their children later in life.

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.