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Survey reveals true extent of on-line danger children put themselves into

Global Secure Systems (GSS) : 04 March, 2009  (Technical Article)
Poor password protection, illegal downloads and extensive chat network with unknown "friends" puts up to 50% of online children at risk
Pupils are using their PCs at home for two main reasons: online chatting and downloading and sharing music. 40percent admit that they have "chat buddies" who they do not know in real life, and half admit using peer-to-peer software (P2P) to download music illegally. That's according to research out today, which was conducted amongst 800 pupils in secondary schools over the last two years by UK-based IT security consultancy firmGlobal Secure Systems (GSS), as part of their participation in a scheme set up by (ISC)2 with the support of Childnet International, where certified information security professionals go into schools and talk to pupils about being safe and secure online.

The findings reveal that many pupils are putting themselves, their friends, their parents and, indeed, their parents' corporate networks, at risk as their behaviour online is exposing them to a whole myriad of threats. 20percent of pupils confessed to having their computers infected by a virus after using P2P software. This may be contributing to many of the virus attacks within the business environment, as parents unwittingly spread the viruses to their work computers through emails and removable media (such as USBs or CD-ROMs).

Kevin Gourlay, CISSP, head of consultancy at GSS and a volunteer for (ISC)2's Safe & Secure school outreach programme said, "A large percentage of children are using a shared computer for downloading music, using P2P software or chatting using Instant Messaging, whilst their parents are using it for emailing, online shopping, banking or completing corporate activities. This places parents at high risk of being exposed to a whole array of viruses, scams and Trojans that may have been introduced to the home computer through their children's seemingly harmless activities on the net. These viruses can be used to gather important information such as credit card or bank details, and if transferred to the work environment, can expose them not only to personal ID theft but corporate ID theft as well."

Online chatting programmes were used extensively by the majority of the children in the survey, using software such as MSN, Yahoo, Facebook and Bebo. Most of the children used this facility to catch up with friends and family outside of school hours with general chatting and file sharing being the most popular features. Alarmingly, 40percent of the children had "chat buddies" they did not know in real life. Some of these buddies were innocent, including friends' of friends and children from other schools with similar interests however, a small number did admit that they had added people they were not sure about.

A small number of respondents (all girls) had been asked by a friend they do not know in 'real life' if they wished to meet up. Reassuringly, not one of these girls had agreed to meet with the unknown person.

The other major activity carried out by children is downloading/listening and sharing music from the net. When questioned about the legalities of downloading music, nearly all of the children understood that there were legal and illegal methods that could be used to download music. Over half admitted to using P2P software to download music illegally rather than using programs such as iTunes. Further more, almost all the pupils who acknowledged using P2P software admitted to installing it themselves (This can only be completed if the user has high level access to the PC).

When questioned about password and system usage, around half of pupils admitted that they don't secure their login with a password or they use one that is simple to guess. Also, many share their login account with other family members. Only a handful of children admitted that their parents had introduced security to the home computer that didn't allow them to install software.

David Hobson, managing director, Global Secure Systems says, "Kevin's research confirms what most people already suspected. The home PC is shared by a household, and each member has different needs and requirements. We believe the increasing growth in tele working will mean more people will be encouraged to use the home PC for corporate access. An organisation's security is only as strong as its weakest link, and the home PC may be a huge threat to an organisation's data. This was highlighted recently with all the snow, and offices being closed - businesses needed remote working, instantly. To have recovered from a potential disaster and get people working and then get a major virus outbreak would be a huge blow."

Mr Gourlay concludes: "This survey begs the question: Do we really know what our kids are doing online? After questioning 800 children about computer security it is apparent that the majority of kids are highly skilled in the use of computers as a social tool. I do strongly believe, however, that they have little understanding of security and how this can have a catastrophic affect on friends, family or even the work place."
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