Criminal mastermind or misguided teen.
A young man from Nova Scotia is presented as both this week, as that province struggles with an information breech that highlights our collective deficiencies when it comes to keeping pace with technology.
Nova Scotia’s Internal Services Minister first announced the province’s online access-to-information request portal was taken offline in early April, citing an “issue with the site.” A follow-up press conference revealed more than 7,000 documents had been downloaded from the site by a single “non-authorized user.”
That user was a 19-year-old local resident who told a reporter he routinely would download large chunks of information from various online sources to search through later. He says he found the documents, which the provincial government intended to be secure, by simply adjusting the code – an extremely basic technique even I’ve used to try to find specific information, and I’m not at all what I would describe as tech-savvy.
The bulk download of information that wasn’t meant to be publically accessible resulted in a police raid of this man’s parent’s home, an experience that his family says has traumatized his 13-year-old sister and impacted his father’s ability to do his job. The 19-year-old was arrested and is charged with unauthorized use of a computer; the charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Most legal and software experts commenting on the case suggest the fault lies not with the young man, but with the system that allowed him to find the information without encryption. Surprisingly few accounts have questioned the service provider and the initial government contract requirements. There are parallels being drawn to Aaron Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, who killed himself while facing charges for unauthorised mass downloading of academic articles. The common thread is the question of what is perceived to be private and what is actually accessible – and for me, that begs that question of how are we helping our children understand these differences.
My friend Sara said it perfectly. “Who is teaching young people the difference between goofing around on the internet and criminal activity? Do we even know ourselves what the difference is in cases like this? In an age of cyberbullying, fake news, unprecedented information sharing, etc., perhaps technology and society or other tech-ethics curriculum should be taught much earlier and to all.”
When I was younger, computer lab didn’t become part of the curriculum until Grade 7 – and none of my school friends had a personal email account until they were issued one at university. Now, computer lab begins in Kindergarten and my daughter asks to watch her classmates’ YouTube channels.
We live in a digital world, but I fear we as parents are woefully unprepared to help our children, as well as ourselves, understand the complexities of this existence. Much work has been done to try to address cyberbullying and ensure our children understand basic online safety: not sharing personal information, showing good judgement in photos shared, and so on. But this case highlights the need for a deeper understanding of not only online security but also online integrity.
A quick search for books to teach children – and their adults – about online ethics shows the need for more work on this topic. There was only one publication I could find, published in 2001. Try to remember the internet back then, before Facebook, before the rise of smartphones, before the Twin Towers fell. In 2001, just over half of all houses in the United States had a personal computer and phones were still used for calling each other. Today, more than three-quarters of adults have a personal computer, half own a tablet, and 94% of Americans ages 18 to 29 have a smartphone (and the other six per cent own a cell).
I hope the province of Nova Scotia, as well as the rest of us, will learn from this case and adjust our expectations of privacy encryption, personal education, and online etiquette – not to mention review whether more than a dozen police officers were required to descend on a family home to respond to this ‘threat’ of thousands of documents being accessed.