Helping our Kids Stay Safe


Back to school security tips for parents and kids

The new school term has just begun, and for parents, the excitement and anxiety may be palpable, especially if it’s your 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 kids 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 charm when it comes to getting some new tech.

Handing your child 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. But we must not leave them entirely to their own devices. It’s important to lay down some ground rules—especially when it comes to security.

So here’s a cybersecurity checklist you can use to prepare your children for this 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. I’m 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 an app they cannot pay for or 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 kids love to game. 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.

Youngsters should also play a part in securing their computing devices and protecting data. An important and particularly relevant piece of knowledge is basic computer hygiene, which might come in even more handy than algebra. Here are a few more cybersecurity tips to include in your child’s expanding mental knowledge base.

  • 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. No, it’s not too complicated for them. Check out the Cryptoy app

Many families have back-to-school preparation routines. From purchasing new clothes and gear to adjusting back to a more rigid activity and sleep schedule. Make learning about basic computer hygiene and securing devices a part of your child’s education. It’s not too early. Kids are smarter than we usually think.

How Secure Are My OneDrive files?
I love having all my data files in the Cloud and accessible for anywhere in the world on any device whenever I need to access them. Cloud storage is the new way to work. If you are still thinking desktop centrically, now is the time to shift your thinking.
When I talk about keeping your data files in the Cloud and tell people that I use Microsoft OneDrive as my main personal file storage location, many people nod their head as if to say, “Yeah, but when I store things on my hard drive, I feel secure — I can make sure that drive and the computer it's associated with are disconnected from a network. But with things stored in the cloud -- Windows Live Folders, Windows Live SkyDrive, SkyDrive, and OneDrive? Where's the assurance that my files are secure?”

Before I answer that question, let's take a quick trip down memory lane. Microsoft's cloud based file sharing and syncing service, now known as OneDrive, is available to anyone with a Microsoft Account, and typically provides 5GB of cloud based storage. (The only exceptions: You have an Office 365 subscription or you have been grandfathered as storage allowances changed over the past few years.) I have an Office 365 subscription, and so MS Office is always up to date and I have 1 TB of OneDrive storage since it’s included with my Office 365 subscription.

I was recently asked just how secure are the files I store in OneDrive and I can answer this questions from a couple of perspectives.
First let's talk about the physical security of your files on OneDrive.

To answer this part let me quote something from Microsoft about access to their data centers where your OneDrive files reside in the cloud:

"Microsoft’s datacenter personnel must pass a background check. All access to our datacenters is strictly regulated and every entry and exit are monitored. Within these datacenters, the critical Azure AD services that store customer data are located in special locked racks—their physical access is highly restricted and camera-monitored 24 hours a day. Furthermore, if one of these servers is decommissioned, all disks are logically and physically destroyed to avoid data leakage."

So that covers your data in the cloud. The other physical location for your OneDrive files is your own device(s.) You're on your own for how you secure those.

Obviously, you want to protect the device from theft by not leaving it in your car, or opened and unattended in your local coffee shop. (You would be amazed how many people do not do these basic things.) You also want to be using a good password along with your Microsoft Account to help prevent unauthorized local access to your files. If you are running Windows 10 and your device supports it, you can also use Windows Hello for biometric authentication to help protect your account even further by logging in with your fingerprint or facial recognition.

If your device’s hard drive can be encrypted using something like BitLocker in Windows 10 Pro, (which is also available on Windows 8 Pro by the way) then you can use that and prevent forced access. This will keep your data protected from someone who might remove the drive and try to access the files directly from the disk.

Note: For those of you on Windows 10 Home or earlier supported versions of Windows you can easily find several commercial options to encrypt your hard drive such as Axcrypt, CertainSafe or Folderlock.

There are also methods for you to share content from your OneDrive cloud storage but that is in your control and requires access to your Microsoft account. By default, every file/folder you store in OneDrive is marked private.

If you share a file/folder by sending a link to someone, be aware that person could easily share that same link with someone else, and then they would also have access to your shared files/folders!

As an alternative, you can invite others to access your OneDrive files by a specific invite that only they can use -- they can't forward it to someone else. This is one additional level of security for your files if you are concerned about shared links getting out in the wild. Also, you can get an expiring link that only allows people with the share link to access the shared files/folders for a length of time you choose
One last area that I will cover when it comes to the security of your OneDrive files is related to privacy and the OneDrive service. Microsoft has an extensive privacy policy relating to their services, and you can learn there how they approach the privacy and security of your personal information that is part of OneDrive.

In closing: The biggest element of protection for the security of your OneDrive files is the physical security of your hardware and having a robust password for your Microsoft Account along with Two-Factor Authentication turned on.

By following these guidelines your data should remain safe and protected.

Please share your tips or experiences with your own tech with the Sangat. Email me and tell me your story, and keep sending me your suggestions for column topics, along with your own favorite smartphone app recommendations and reviews so I can share them here. Just email them to me at [email protected]