Older Americans get the wrong idea about online safety


By Nora McDonald and Helena M. Mentis 5 Minute Read

Recently, the US Social Security Administration sent an email to subscribers to its official blog explaining how to access Social Security statements online. Most people know that they are suspicious of seemingly official emails with links to websites asking for credentials.

But for older adults wary of the prevalence of scams targeting their demographics, such an email can be particularly alarming, as they’ve been told the SSA never sends emails. Based on our research into designing cybersecurity safeguards for older adults, we believe there is legitimate cause for concern.

This population has been trained in a tactical approach to online safety based on fear and mistrust – even of themselves – and focused on specific threats rather than developing strategies to keep them safe online. Older adults have learned this approach from organizations they trust, including nonprofit organizations that teach older adults how to use technology.

These organizations promote the image of older adults as highly vulnerable, while also encouraging them to take unnecessary risks to defend themselves. As information technology researchers, we believe that this need not be the case.

What ‘experts’ tell older Americans

Unfortunately, the guidance older adults receive from those believed to have authority in this area is not ideal.

Perhaps the loudest of those voices is the AARP, an American advocacy organization that has been on a mission for more than six decades to “empower” individuals as they age. In that time, it has built an impressive print and online presence. The magazine reached more than 38 million mailboxes in 2017 and it is an effective advocacy group.

What we found was that the AARP cybersecurity communiqués tell stories to create cartoonish folktales about internet deception. A regular diet of sensational titles such as ‘Grandparent Gotchas’, ‘Sweepstakes Swindles’ and ‘Devilish Diagnoses’ depict current and emerging threats.

These scenarios appeal to readers the way crime shows historically appealed to TV audiences: by using narrative devices to alarm and engage. Ultimately, they also mislead viewers by leaving them with the misconception that they can use what they’ve learned in those stories to defend against criminal threats.

Folktales and Weaknesses

One of the jobs of folktales is to describe the dangers a culture wants its members to learn in childhood. But by presenting cyber risk as a series of ever-evolving narratives that focus on particular risks, the AARP is shifting its focus from basics to anecdotes. This requires its members to compare their online experiences with specific stories.

Readers are implicitly encouraged to assess the plausibility of certain scenarios with questions such as: Could I have unpaid back taxes? And, do I actually have an extended warranty? It requires people to catalog each of these stories and then determine for themselves whether a cold message is a real threat based on its content, rather than the person’s circumstances.

No, it’s not personal

Through this inventory of stories and characters, we also found that the AARP personalized what is essentially a set of structural threats, impersonal by nature. The stories often characterize scammers as people in the middle of the reader who use local news to manipulate older adults.

Real threats are not “sweepstakes scammers” or “Facebook unfriendly”, with a live scammer sensitive to the needs and weaknesses of each intended victim. There is rarely a human relationship between the cyber crook and the victim – no crooks behind the infamous ‘grandparent scam’. The AARP bulletins and advisories imply that there is—or at least implicitly—that old-fashioned view of a direct scammer-victim relationship.

don’t join

Perhaps more worryingly, AARP advisories seem to encourage research into scenarios, when engagement of any kind puts people at risk.

In one post warning people of “8 military-themed scammers,” they discuss “prices that are too good to be true,” when the concept of buying a car on Craigslist, or an “active service member” is urgently needed. selling a car should be a red flag discouraging any kind of involvement.

Internet users of all ages, but especially more vulnerable populations, should be encouraged to withdraw from threats and not be portrayed as sleuths in their own exciting stories.

Protecting Older Adults in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

To reduce everyone’s risk online, we believe it’s important to provide a set of well-curated principles rather than presenting people with a set of stories to learn. Anyone exposed to threats online, but especially those most at risk, needs a checklist of warnings and strict rules against involvement when in doubt.

In short, the best strategy is to just ignore unsolicited contact altogether, especially from organizations you don’t do business with. People need to be reminded that their own context, behavior and relationships are the most important.

Because in the end it’s not just about tools, but also about the world view. Ultimately, in order to make effective and consistent use of security tools, people need a theory of the online world that teaches them about the principles of surveillance capitalism.

We believe that people should be taught to see their online selves as reconstructions made of data, as unreal as bots. This is admittedly a difficult idea, as people have a hard time imagining being separate from the data they generate, and realizing that their online lives are influenced by algorithms that analyze and act on that data.

But it’s an important concept — and one we see older adults embracing in our research when they tell us that while they’re frustrated at receiving spam, they learn to ignore the communication that reflects a “self” they don’t relate to. identify.

Nora McDonald is an assistant professor of information technology at the University of Cincinnati. Helena M. Mentis is a professor of information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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