The FBI’s Future Crimes Expert On Keeping Kids Safe In A Digital World

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As a parent, it’s good to know that your kid is surrounded by really secure technology, corporations with their best interests in mind and no creepy people nearby … oh, wait. Marc Goodman wrote the book on high tech crime (literally — it’s a New York Times bestseller), and he knows all the threats that technology poses to kids. The bad news is they’re less secure than you might think; the good news is he doesn’t think you should hide the family in a concrete bunker. Here’s why.

If You Have A Young Kid

Secure Your Wifi Monitor
The chance of someone seeking out your unsecured internet connection and using it to access your nursery monitor to watch (or scream at) your baby are very small; the stories of it actually happening are absolutely terrifying. “From a security perspective, all of these devices are hackable,” says Goodman, and can potentially be leveraged by burglars, pedophiles and other perverts. Even if that sounds alarmist, your home network should be secure anyway. Goodman recommends WPA 2-level encryption for your internet router, which should be an option unless you’re still an AOL dial up customer. The router password needs to exceed Spaceballs-level complexity, as does the password on the device itself. If the device doesn’t have a password option, you bought a piece of crap. Oh, and here’s a novel security technique: turn it off when you’re not using it.

Pull Their Credit Report Occasionally
“If somebody steals your identity, you’re going to see the charges on your credit card statement and realize that you didn’t buy a stereo in Lagos,” says Goodman. “Kids don’t have credit cards and they don’t view their credit reports, but they do have social security numbers. Hackers go after these because they can use it for 18 years before the kid goes to apply for financial aid and discovers their credit score is 260.” As banks get more savvy about detecting traditional identity theft, stealing the social security numbers of newborns becomes more common, so don’t wait until Junior gets their first credit card to check.

Turn Geotagging Off On Your Phone’s Camera:
If you’ve managed to keep pictures of your baby in a digital black box, that’s great (but your in-laws must hate you). Anyone who wants to share images with their friends digitally gives up control of those images. By ensuring that the pics don’t contain any location-based information, you can rest (a tiny bit) easier knowing that no one can use them to figure out where you live. Here’s how to turn this setting off on an iPhone, and in Android.

If You’re Kid Is Older

Understand That Corporations Target Them
The Children Online Privacy Protection Act explicitly limits how much corporations can market to kids under the age of 13 … and it’s violated constantly. Facebook, Google, McDonald’s, General Mills, Viacom, Turner Broadcasting, Sony and Subway are just a few examples of corporations that have been fined for coaxing information out of kids through sites like HappyMeal.com and Nick.com. That data included how many siblings they have and their street address. Goodman is particularly weirded out by the idea of Hello Barbie, Mattel’s “smart” doll that learns your kid’s name and asks them questions about what they like and don’t like. “They’re recording your children’s voice, sending it to third parties, and they can listen in the background — there isn’t an off switch,” he says. “When we were kids, our dolls didn’t require a Terms Of Service.”

Exercise Authority Over Their Devices
You’re paying for it,” Goodman points out, so you shouldn’t feel bad about using services like those provided by Verizon or AT&T that let you locate your kid’s phone. He also recommends monitoring software that lets you limit what they can see and who they can talk to online. There are free versions of these programs, but for really robust features pony up for something like PhoneSheriff ($89 per year). Another common sense way to keep them from wandering too far into the online wilderness without a chaperon is to make sure their bedrooms remain offline. Centralize the family computers in a single room, make them keep their phones or tablets in the kitchen, or simply don’t give them your wifi password. It may feel draconian, but it’s way better than having them learn the birds and the bees from a Dutch pedophile.

Don’t Assume They Understand Tech Better Than You
“They’re competent, they know how to use all the latest tools, but they have a lack of curiosity. There’s no adult logic,” Goodman says, recalling a talk he gave to 4,000 high school students who were shocked to learn that their Snapchats did’t actually disappear after 10 seconds. The tendency for kids to not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions doesn’t go away just because they can beat you on Xbox. The idea that a text lacks context that can turn a joke into an insult is lost on them. So is the idea that nothing ever really disappears online, and it can come back to haunt them. “Their ability to discern adult from child or friend from foe is weak,” says Goodman. “They only place they’ll get that is from their parents.”

Don’t Run For The Hills
“I’m broadly an optimist,” he says. “Your kid can sit down at 14 and take a class at Harvard. In the past, if you wanted to learn French, you needed a textbook. Now you can talk to a hot French girl halfway around the world. Technology opens up tremendous opportunities; it will bring 2 billion people out of poverty, reduce infant mortality and bring education to the world. It’s awesome, we just need to mitigate against the downsides.”

Either that, or just move to Amish country, which is supposed to be beautiful this time of year.

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