OnGuard Online is the federal government’s web site “to help you be safe, secure and responsible online.” It’s managed by the Federal Trade Commission, “in partnership with the federal agencies listed below. OnGuardOnline.gov is a partner in the Stop Think Connect campaign, led by the Department of Homeland Security, and part of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.”
As a part of its mission to make sure that you are safe, secure and responsible while using electronic communications, OnGuard Online has published a manual called Net Cetera: Chatting With Kids About Being Online.
The manual warns about malware, and cyberbullying, online scams, and the desirability of social media self-censorship, but there’s one gaping hole in the document’s coverage: How do we talk to our kids about the government’s use of the Internet and other forms of electronic communication to spy on them?
I’ve got kids, and this topic has come up a number of times. Every conversation we have about security on the Internet begins with the reality of the massive surveillance of practically everybody’s private electronic communications, by our own government.
I explain to them that the highest law in the land is the Constitution, and that part of the Constitution is the Fourth Amendment, which promises absolute protection from unreasonable search and seizure by requiring search warrants that identify specific people and specific places to be searched, for particular, legally justified suspicion that a crime has been committed or is being planned. I then explain to my children, that in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the federal government’s National Security Agency has been working with other spy agencies and law enforcement agencies to search the private communications of millions of Americans, without any warrant, and without any specific information of any particular crime or criminal conspiracy. I tell them that it’s safe for them to assume that anything they do on the Internet, any telephone call they make, any email they sent, any digital photograph they take, is being diverted into government databases, where it can be searched at will by a large number of government bureaucrats.
My children are confused at this point. They ask me to reconcile the promise of the Constitution with the actions of the federal government. I don’t provide that reconciliation. Instead, use my children’s confusion as an opportunity to point out that authority figures often cannot be trusted with power, and it’s important to be skeptical of them.
None of these points are addressed in Net Cetera: Chatting With Kids About Being Online. Neither the Net Cetera manual nor OnGuard Online ever acknowledge the threat to the privacy of American children posed by the electronic spying system created by the National Security Agency. They don’t even mention the existence of the NSA. When I search for “National Security Agency” on the OnGuard Online web site, the site’s search engine comes up zero findings, and asks if I might have meant to search for “personal security gente”.
This immense, politically-motivated omission makes OnGuard Online, with its Net Cetera manual for parents, yet another example of a voice of authority that cannot be trusted. Our children deserve the entire truth about the threats to privacy that exist online – not the lies and half-truths of the Homeland Security regime.
Postscript: The lack of information about NSA spying against Americans that I’ve noted in the Net Cetera report is also a problem with the other materials created by the Stop Think Connect campaign. The Stop Think Connect Guide, for example, is offered in different versions to students, teachers, corporate managers, and senior citizens. The guides go on at great length about “cybersecurity awareness”, yet are content to leave people completely in the dark when it comes to threats to cybersecurity that come from the NSA and other agencies engaged in widespread electronic espionage against American citizens and corporations.
The Stop Think Connect guide for “industry professionals” urges people to plan communications to “target employees”, an interesting choice of words, given that the NSA insists that it never targets Americans for spying, but just accidentally picks up billions of items of private communications from millions of Americans, day after day, after day, and then allows the Americans to be targeted through the ICReach surveillance search engine.
Talking points from Stop Think Connect urge professionals to tell their colleagues that “no country, industry, community or individual is immune to cyber risks, and no one government agency, company or individual can solve the riddle of cybersecurity,” and that “cybersecurity is a shared responsibility; we all have to work together to secure cyberspace.”
If we all have to work together to secure cyberspace, why doesn’t the NSA do its part, and stop using the Internet to spy on Americans?
It may be true that “no one government agency… can solve the riddle of cybersecurity,” but we sure as hell would be a lot closer to solving the riddle of cybersecurity if government agencies like the National Security Agency stopped purposefully developing security flaws in our software, just to enable its surveillance to gain a wider reach into our private lives.