Infosec: Don’t fear the word

Are these words too difficult for you? Basilisk, snuffleupagus, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Quidditch, Oompa Loompa. I hope not! They’re all part of the magical world of children’s literature.

Give many adults these words: Darknet, cipher, binary, encryption, proxy server. All of a sudden, I hear a different story…these words are too hard and complicated.

The difference is we approach Dr. Seuss with an open mind, prepared to let our imaginations absorb all sorts of meanings. And we learned that a fizza-ma-wizza-ma-dill is a bird that eats only pine trees and spits out the bark.

Hand an adult a children’s story about technology—well, they get a bit freaked out. Why? Because they’ve already decided the digital world is too difficult to comprehend—no matter how simple the concept. And yet, that same adult is more than happy to help their child figure out how Quidditch is played.

As a dad and infosec professional, I’d argue that a child’s understanding of a darknet is more valuable to their future than learning the diet of an imaginary bird or the rules of a sport played on flying broomsticks. In today’s era of digital crime, kids need to know that a darknet is what cyber criminals often use to hide their illegal activities.

What I’ve learned is that when a child’s imagination is inspired they are highly motivated to learn. They push themself into understanding what new words mean…even the difficult ones like encryption and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. And some kids even want to learn how to spell these words too!

Let’s not allow an adult’s uncertainty about technology taint a child’s motivation to learn about their future. Let’s encourage young minds to absorb what an Oompa Loompa is as well as a proxy server.

How do we do that? By teaching kids of all ages the language of infosec. By using it as a part of our daily vocabulary. Notice, I said “kids of all ages” because those of us in infosec must recognize that many parents, even some tech moms and dads, might not have a basic understanding of the words that drive security in cyberspace.

Here’s where you can begin.

Explain infosec to kids using words they understand. This doesn’t mean you don’t use technical terms but rather include words they are familiar with in your explanations. For instance, “encryption is how you make messages secret.”

Kids think in visual ways. So infosec, let’s use that to our advantage! Answer their questions about cyberspace in a simple, easy-to-visualize age appropriate way. I explain to my young daughters that spearphishing is when a bad guy turns your computer into his puppet so he can do naughty things with it.

Don’t fear the word. My daughters have incredible radar when it comes to Daddy’s feelings. I don’t have to say a word after I’ve discovered their bedroom wall has been turned into a mural composed with fingerpaint and crayon. The look of sheer frustration on my face says it all. But frustration isn’t good when I’m trying to help my girls learn a more challenging concept, like how a website gets downloaded into their tablet. If they know Daddy thinks it’s difficult, they’ll become apprehensive about whether they can understand it too. It’s important that as adults, when we hear a word like source code, that we don’t flinch. Or worse—abdicate our responsibility to learn simply because we deem a technical term is too difficult. Our kids are watching us.

Don’t make it up. If you don’t know what to call something, look it up or better yet call another techie for help. My expertise is infosec; when it comes to digital marketing technology I’m not as fluent as my buddy developing those platforms. He’s shared what a pre-roll is and I’ve explained DNS sinkholes. Now when my girls watch videos online we often have to view a pre-roll first and his kids know a sinkhole helps stops some cyber crimes. We must work together to make sure our kids have an accurate vocabulary that spans our digital world.

It’s never too early to answer questions from kids about technology. We can’t deny that even toddlers are swiping and tapping these days. And when they do start pointing at a screen, explain what they see. Some days I feel like a tour guide as my daughter navigates her tablet. I point out that we’ve unlocked the device using a four digit PIN. I show her that the tablet is connected to our home WiFi signal. That she’s opening an application. Then we download a movie. And now that the movie is over, we’re locking the device again. Call it a browser, show them an antivirus scan, explain that apps and software need updating and let them watch as you live your digital life too.

Not all your children’s friends will be talking infosec. And that’s okay because not all kids have an infosec professional in the family to like you. It just means that you need to reinforce the words you prefer your kids use when talking about the digital world. Just as they will learn that Oompa loompas prefer being paid in cocoa beans, they will learn that a proxy server is what cyber criminals use to hide while traveling and launching attacks in cyberspace.

And hopefully, your child’s grasp of the infosec language will eventually rub off on their friends too! So next time the word binary gets tossed around let’s encourage adults, and kids, who don’t know what it means to say “that sounds so cool let’s figure it out.” And then they call you for help because you’ve become the neighborhood infosec mom or dad, like me.

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