No one is qualified to use the internet

Martin Levins
30 June, 2012
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The phone rings and it’s Mike from Admin.

“Can you help me with this thing? It’s really frustrating.”

The “thing” turns out to be a website which led to the Safari message, ‘Warning: Visiting this site may harm your computer.’

I asked if this behaviour had only recently occurred, and was told that it had been going on for a few weeks.

“So, what have you been doing?” I asked.

“I just click through because that’s the only way I can get to the website,” came the distressing (to me) answer – it made me think of this column’s title.

As educators, we spend a lot of time dealing with safety on the web, but this safety thing is about more than axe-murdering paedophiles and kids doing stupid things to one another on the net. Additionally, while we work on kids’ understanding of the dangers of the internet, we rarely target adults with this assistance.

I don’t mean to trivialise the sexual and bullying dangers of the internet, but it’s often forgotten that one of the biggest issues is identity theft, and crooks will do some amazing things to induce you to surrender personal data.

You may think you can distinguish between fair dinkum and phishing when looking at a site, but try this quick quiz on the OpenDNS site (and yes, it is kosher).

So what are some good strategies for safety?

Safari preferences is a good start, making sure that blocking cookies from third parties and advertisers is checked, and, if you use Autofill, making sure that you never leave your machine for others to use.

In Mail hover over links in emails to see where they are actually taking you, and go to View > Message > Raw Source for an old-school view of emails that will reveal the path that has been taken to reach you, often disclosing fake emails that purport to be coming from known sources.

Don’t work on your laptop as an administrator, lest you inadvertently click ‘OK’ to a dialogue that results in malware being installed. The little extra time to enter an administrator’s name and password is usually enough to rethink whether you actually want to proceed.

AgileBits’ 1Password ($36.99 from the Mac App Store) will help you remember all your passwords. It stores settings in a separate, encrypted file that can be opened with one master password (make it a good one) a little like Keychain, but sharable across machines using something like Dropbox to store the settings file.

In System Preferences > Security & Privacy, set ‘Require password … after sleep or screen saver begins’ to protect your machine from wandering or mischievous children bent on purchasing all of iTunes. Likewise, and for the same reasons, set a PIN on your iDevices.

Insist on good passwords with your students and other teachers.

“It doesn’t really matter. The kids haven’t got nuclear secrets, have they?” is an often-heard retort when security comes up in the staffroom, but if a criminal can pose as that kid, he or she can use your network and cause havoc, seemingly coming from your institution.

The real lesson is that, despite all these precautions, it’s social engineering that will cause a downfall. We’re all experienced enough not to answer Nigerian emails, but updates to software and other seemingly innocuous ‘click here’ prompts can result in weeping and gnashing of teeth unless you have your wits about you, and continually learn about traps and how to avoid them.

You’ll still be unqualified, but you’ll be more circumspect, and safer.

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