Old people scare me

Summary:Our elderly don't seem to get that the threats we have today are very different from the threats they've known all their lives. Our elderly are enormous targets of opportunity for criminals.

When it comes to the modern, online world, I worry about our elders. Now, I know some of you are going to say that's ageist, but it's not. It's actually a valid concern.

During the holidays, we often get to speak with more elderly people than we do during our normal workaday days. We meet with family, we see our aunts and uncles, our neighbors, their parents, and we all swap stories.

These days, many of the stories revolve around the computer. Older people are getting to know Facebook, are doing their banking online, are buying their products online -- in short, they're using the Internet like the rest of us.

But they also tell stories that'll curl your hair. They'll tell stories of the virus that's been on their computer for months, but they still go to their bank online. They tell stories of the nice man who offered to sell their timeshare, but after giving him thousands of dollars upfront, surprise, the sale never went through. They tell stories of all the nice pictures and animations they open in their email, even from people they've never met. They tell stories of the online orders they placed without ever knowing whether the site was secure.

When we, who understand the implications of these stories ask questions, or make suggestions, we get shrugged off. "Have you checked with your bank to see if you still have any money?" A chuckle. "Have you considered updating your browser from IE6?" A shrug. "Since you have a virus, maybe you should do a clean install." A wry smile. "Don't you think you should stop opening all those attachments?" A dismissive wave of the hand. "Maybe you should move off XP to Windows 7." A shake of the head -- too expensive.

Many of our seniors have mastered basic computer technology. After all, people in their 80s now were in their 50s in the 1980s. They've had PCs for years. They understand how to launch applications, how to use a spreadsheet, how to move files around.

They certainly understand meatspace threats. They know not to talk back to the cop. They know to look both ways when crossing the road. Many of them have known real adversity and have seen real horrors in their lives. Many of them lived through atrocities. Many of them, if their stories were to be told, would be seen as true heroes merely for getting by.

To many of our elderly, the very real online threat from roving gangs of online marauders is, by comparison, just a funny story told by their overwrought offspring. Kids, theses days! Kids play videogames and talk of foreign hackers. So cute.

Yes, they saw that movie, The Net. Wasn't Sandra Bullock adorable?

For the record, that was 1995, and the online threat has come a long way since then. Entire nation states are engaging in cybercrime as a way to raise money. Billion-dollar organized crime syndicates are using Ph.D.-level hackers to develop technical algorithms and try out new forms of social engineering. Phishing and identity theft are at an all-time high.

We middle-agers know we're at risk. We do our best to protect ourselves, but we know full-well that nothing is really enough. Even so, we do our regular updates, we check our bank balances daily, we update our virus definitions, we scan our machines, we run risky software in virtual machines, we read sites like ZDNet and respond to zero-day threats. We do our best. Some of us even use Linux and aren't insufferable about it.

But our elderly don't seem to get that the threats we have today are very different from the threats they've known all their lives. Our elderly are enormous targets of opportunity for criminals.

This worries us techies deeply. In today's modern world, it's not practical for seniors to live without the Internet. We can do our best to set up firewalls. We can try to move some people off Windows to, say, the iPad (or, yes, Linux). We can try to teach as much as possible. But many of our parents and grandparents seem unwilling to learn. They seem to think that the scary stuff we're talking about is a mere game, we're crying wolf, we're scared of the boogeyman in the closet.

This is a real threat. Our elders are at risk. I don't have a good answer about how to keep our cherished older citizens safe without banning them from being online. At the very least, we have to watch over them. We have to try, even if it seems like it's falling on deaf ears, to explain the risks. Even if we have to explain it time after time after time.

I'm starting to think that there ought to be something like an online driver's license. We require driver's licenses so that people prove a minimum level of competence on our shared roadways and so we can track who drives what vehicle. Perhaps it's time to require something similar online.

Let me be clear. I don't like this idea, but it's one of the only approaches that comes to mind. Even so, I don't think it'd fully protect our seniors.

See also:

What do you think? How can we protect our seniors from threats they don't seem able to understand. How can we make sure these folks don't lose their life savings, their homes, or worse? TalkBack below.

Topics: CXO, Browser, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Security, Software

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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