Help protect your kids by teaching them four critical lessons.
GUEST COLUMN | by Gary Davis
Software is eating the world, as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously wrote, and as a result, having the ability to produce software by writing code has become a valuable skill. It opens up access to good jobs and financial security, and some would even say coding will be akin to literacy within a couple of decades. In other words, those who can’t code will be at a disadvantage when they look for a job. Even if you think that outcome seems unlikely, coding is clearly a skill that will be useful for many reasons and one that parents should help their children to explore. The good news is that it’s often not a hard sell. According to Intel Security’s Realities of Cyber Parenting Study, 60 percent of children between 8 and 16 are interested in learning to code for new websites and apps, with 31 percent of them already learning the skill in school.
Coding is a critical skill for success in the modern economy, and you should absolutely encourage your children to develop their programming abilities, especially if they demonstrate an aptitude for it.
The research also uncovered that only 12 percent of parents surveyed are worried that these skills might be used for unlawful purposes. That number really ought to be higher. Parents should be just as mindful of where and how children are applying their coding skills as they are of their social media usage and who they’re talking to online.
The primary risk for children who code is that they’ll get in over their heads and do something illegal without really intending to. It’s not common, but it does happen. Take the case in New York City earlier this year, when a high school junior hacked into his school’s secure system and changed his grades. While he may have thought he was doing something to help better his future, instead he was charged as an adult with forgery, computer trespass, unauthorized use of a computer and other crimes.
The reality is, children don’t even need to know how to program to find trouble in the dark corners of the Web. It only takes an interest in hacking, since it’s possible to find or buy code online that’s capable of piercing vulnerable systems. You can go from browsing Facebook, where you find an article about hacking, to committing a crime in an hour or two.
With this in mind, it’s important for parents to make their techy children aware that actions they take online with innocent intentions might, in some limited circumstances, be construed as malicious. Alone in their rooms in front of a computer screen, a practical joke might seem harmless. But a couple of hours of tinkering with code could compromise their futures. In other words, you don’t have to be intentionally committing a cybercrime to cross a line, so it’s important to be actively considering the implications of your online behavior.
Here are four lessons to help set your children on the right path:
Write well-documented code. Keep in mind that comments inside code serve a specific utility: to help the next programmer who comes along to understand what a complex piece of code does. On its face, this has nothing to do with promoting ethical behavior, but by teaching kids to be deliberate and methodical in their coding process, you’ll hopefully be encouraging them to be thoughtful about what they’re creating and what it can unleash, if not handled properly.
Never build backdoors into your code. Essentially an undocumented way of gaining access to a program, service or an entire system, backdoors are a major security risk. By creating them to intentionally access private information or allow other people to circumvent security authentication, you can give rise to a host of harmful activities, like spam or malware attacks. So it’s important to make kids understand that there are adverse consequences to building backdoors that they may not be thinking about.
Don’t be lured by the dark side. There’s a name for young, largely untrained black hat hackers who use scripts developed by more sophisticated coders to make mischief: “script kiddies” (also known as skiddies, skids, script bunnies and script kitties.) They find programs to deploy in attacks on weak systems and can do some real damage; schools and local law enforcement agencies are among their common targets. Usually they’re just looking to show off and make a name for themselves. So make sure your child understands that malicious behavior has legal implications, and it likely won’t be written off as a cute prank.
Use your powers for good. If your kid is a skilled coder and wants a challenge, he or she can seek out companies that hire white hat hackers to suss out security flaws. For example, Tesla Motors has hired hackers to improve security in its cars, and it’s certainly not alone. Many large tech companies have need of these services, especially after a major software release, when hackers with malicious intentions are also poking around to find weaknesses.
To come back to my initial point, coding is a critical skill for success in the modern economy, and you should absolutely encourage your children to develop their programming abilities, especially if they demonstrate an aptitude for it. Overall, the most important thing you can do to ensure your children are coding responsibly is to have frequent conversations with them about what they’re working on and make sure they’re thinking through how their behavior affects others.
Gary Davis is chief consumer security evangelist at Intel Security. Through a consumer lens, he works closely with internal teams to drive strategic alignment of products with the needs of the security space. Gary also oversees Intel Security online safety education to educate businesses and consumers by distilling complex security topics into easily understandable and actionable advice. Find him on Twitter @garyjdavis or check out his blog here.