The time to start the new school term is just around the corner. And for parents, the excitement and anxiety may be palpable, especially if it's their kid's first time attending a new school. Ads for back-to-school gear start as early as July, increasing in frequency and urgency until the kiddos step foot on the bus. And while they may not be begging you for new pencils and erasers, chances are they'll turn on the puppy dog–eyed charm when it comes to new tech.
Handing your young one their very own mobile device—a laptop, usually—that they can use in their studies almost seems like a rite of passage. In their hands is the first step toward independence. It's also a way of letting them take on some responsibilities for themselves. Parents, this isn't to say we're leaving them entirely to their own devices. It's important to lay down some ground rules—especially when it comes to security.
To that effect, we're providing you with a cybersecurity checklist you can use to prepare your children for the coming school year.
- Watch out for too-good-to-be-true software and device sales. Is that Facebook ad really promising a brand-new Mac laptop for $200 if you just click here and fill out your personal info? Think hard before you jump on a back-to-school online ad that seems fiendishly cheap. It could be adware, it could be a scam, or it could lead you to a malicious page that will later infect your own computer.
- Ensure that they have security software and tools installed on their new device. Antivirus with anti-phishing features, firewalls, script blockers, ad blockers, password managers, anti-theft apps, anti-malware and ransomware—you name it. Cyberattacks can come from all sides these days, so it pays to have at least one of each of these software programs and/or extensions installed on their computer, phone, or tablet. And if you think your child's Mac is bulletproof from these attacks, think again.
- Stress the importance of physical security, too. Physically securing devices is just as important as securing the data inside of them. We're not just talking about using a padded bag for laptops, or shock-absorbent cases and shatterproof screen covers for phones and tablets. We're talking about locking cables and USB port blockers, actual things that thwart theft and unauthorized access, respectively, while they're in school.
- Instill in them the habit of locking computers when they have to move away from them for a while. Locking screens is another way to prevent others from, say, flipping your child's screen upside down, snooping around, and looking at files they shouldn't be looking at. Beware the "hacked" social media posts that reveal false, embarrassing information about their users!
- Disable the autorun functionality of their OS. As you may know, malware can be stored in and transported via USB sticks. If your child's computer automatically runs what's inside it once slotted into the machine's port, then this is a real problem. Thankfully, there are a number of ways one can disable autorun. For Windows users, Microsoft has dedicated a page just for that.
- Introduce them to multi-factor authentication (MFA). The most common and widely used MFA is two-factor authentication (2FA). In order for them to know and understand what it is, you might show them how it works using your own phone and computer. That way, if they are asked to sign up for online programs that store their data at school, they can raise their hand and ask if the program has MFA. By educating your child on this security procedure, he or she can educate the school in turn.
- Discourage rooting/jailbreaking. If your child is old enough to figure out how to root or jailbreak a device, chances are they'll probably be tempted to do this. Jailbreaking opens devices to custom modifications and the unrestricted download and use of apps from third-party sources. These can be quite handy if your child wants one that cannot be found in the official app store. However, jailbreaking and rooting increases the success rate of a hacking attempt, as these overwrite the device’s inherent security settings, making devices more vulnerable and susceptible to threats.
- Update game console firmware. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Isn’t your little gamer glad that back-to-school gadgets are not limited to calculators, headphones, and keyboards? Gaming consoles are becoming more like computers as they evolve. Although it’s rare for them to catch malware (at least for the time being), there are still ways hackers can circumvent their security to perform other malicious acts, such as gaining access to gaming accounts. So for now, update the gaming console’s firmware—and do this on a regular basis—before handing it to your child.
- Ask your children to familiarize themselves with the school's Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). If at this point you've glazed over, we understand. An ICT AUP is generally a set of rules the schools (and organizations) enforce for the proper use of the Internet. It's for staff and students alike, so they must agree to this before they can use the school's network. Unfortunately, many educational establishments don't have such a policy, but if theirs does—great! Get your child acquainted with it so they can be sure they won't be called out for misusing resources.
- Talk to them about shoulder surfers. Some say it's only normal for people to glance over your shoulder while you're on your laptop, tablet, or phone. But let us not be too quick in giving this behavior a pass. Shoulder surfing is a serious security and privacy risk, and a lot of users may be in danger of compromise by unknowingly letting the person behind them watch as they key in their account password with their user name in full view.
- Learn about encryption. The availability of information and today's technology has made it possible for anyone, even young children, to learn about encryption. Suffice it to say—yes, there's an app for that.