Kids. Am I right? Always breaking stuff, touching stuff that shouldn't be touched, getting into stuff that shouldn't be gotten into. And always asking "why?" Why do you always ask "why," kids? Why!?
Apparently, one Microsoft security researcher has the answer: Children are "natural hackers."
"Children represent a unique challenge to the security and privacy considerations of the home," writes Microsoft researcher Stuart Schechter in a paper entitled "The User Is the Enemy, and (S)he Keeps Reaching for that Bright Shiny Power Button!" to be presented at the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS) tomorrow in Newcastle, England.
But it's not just about keeping children safe from potential hazards. Schechter points out that “children’s role in home security and privacy goes beyond that of hapless victim, as they often have a surprising knack for mischief of their own.”
[See also: 7 Ways to Make Your Child's School Safer]
He even describes children as "adversaries," which might cause outrage or cheer depending on how you feel about children. But Schechter has a point, even if he is being a bit tongue-in-cheek about it.
“Children find innovative and potentially damaging applications for household objects ... They escape the household and assist in the escape of both pets and of objects intended for indoor-only use. Many children perform surveillance operations which are invasive to the privacy of parents, siblings, or other members of the household.”
When you look at it that way, children can be a huge threat to home security, particularly their own. So Schechter has taken several traditional security approaches and adapted them for parents and children's caregivers.
For example, as Schechter so succinctly points out, "children cannot be banished." Banning malignant or inappropriate users is often a first step that digital security providers take to protect a system. That doesn't go over so well when the user in question is a kid with a knack for escaping the crib.
In fact, from a developmental perspective, a certain amount of rule-breaking is desirable in children. “A home with perfect security — one that prevented all inappropriate behavior or at least ensured that it was recorded so that the adversary could be held accountable — could severely stunt children’s moral and personal growth,” Schechter wrote.
Schechter also addresses the question of parental surveillance. Adults often have an easier time accepting surveillance because they feel they have a choice in the matter, such as choosing to work for a company knowing that his or her work computer usage will be monitored.
"Children react differently to surveillance because the decision to monitor them is personal," Schechter points out. "Adding surveillance can breed distrust and cause adversarial behavior." To counter this, Schechter suggests that parents be open about their monitoring activities and try to record less personal data. He suggests, for example, tracking the location of cars and bicycles instead of children themselves, or recording the amount of TV watched and the maturity rating instead of recording specific programs.
Of course, Schechter is being a bit tongue-in-cheek. But aside from trying to raise some eyebrows and draw a few laughs, Schechter is also doing something interesting: He's framing the challenges of parenthood like a security problem.
The metaphor might not be perfect, but it works surprisingly well, especially when Schechter compares children to hackers:
"Children … live in a world designed for people with stronger muscles, better motor skills, keener senses, better communications skills, and other essential abilities and knowledge. Survival and development require them to tinker with their world in order to learn about it. Indeed, much of what child psychologists call early learning would be calling hacking by technologists. Younger children have little to do with their time but hack and, as children grow, the ones who retain their hacking skills will be the more formidable adversaries."
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