Old people scare me

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


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • My Parents are in their 80's

    They have better online security practices than my nieces and nephews. The younger people, at least in my family, are the ones who're likely to dismiss online threats.
    • Teenage wasteland

      @ancientprogrammer <br><br>is a greater scourge indeed. Even if the thrust of this story carries merit, less actually with elderly competence or awareness in pooting, but more with the sleazy bastardz who prey upon them ceaselessly (per the WWW and beyond).
    • This story, and ancientprogrammer's comment all true!


      This article is great. Its only hit the nail slightly on the head though as ancientprogrammer has pointed out because there are many situations where its not necessarily the old folk with these kinds of hair raising stories. Much like ancientprogrammer's parents, my elderly fathers online practices are pretty good, but I in fact have had plenty of opportunities to see people of all ages who have abysmal online practices.

      I recently found one of my cousins who only seldom goes online, hadn't updated his computer in about 4-5 years, was working with IE6 and his AV had shut down for being so seriously out of date. He is 50. And is a relatively bright person and should have known better. Only the lucky fact that his online footprint is about the size of half the head of a pin kept his machine out of trouble.

      I see people of all ages all over the place who expect about the same kind of service out of their computer as they would an automobile. They expect to start it up, and if it starts, they then expect to simply take off and forget completely about whats going on under the hood. They have about as much concern for the other traffic on the internet as they do about traffic on the road, that might sound OK, but think about it, on the road you do NOT expect others to be out on the road thinking about what kind of damage they can do to you, and on the internet there are plenty that are trying to do you some damage and it requires thinking about that aspect as you travel around. There is plenty I see happen on a road that people would never ever do if you had the problem where there were really other drivers out there looking to slam you.

      People in general are not IT savvy. I see many things discussed and talked about, things revealed, and things predicted on ZDNet that so so many of the general public know nothing about; and many could care less about. Yet interestingly enough, all to often the article, or comments following it appear to be based on some kind of thinking that wants to include, or apply to the public in general, yet most of the public either doesn't have a clue, or doesn't behave or think in the expressed manner at all.

      David Gewirtz has made a fine article here because so many things are too often written around here seemingly without a clue what its really like out there with Joe Average/man on the street. Remember, people who are working in the field of IT, or who are simply quite IT savvy will over a period of time often make many of those closest around them more IT savvy, so even thinking about their own experiences with those close to them often will not paint an accurate picture of what Joe Average is really like for people who are IT savvy and write here.

      When you really talk to people who have no real interest in technology, and there are millions of them everywhere, they don't give much of a damn about the newest version of Android, they could care less about when Windows 8 is coming out, and they have a very poor clue about the extent of the online risks that exist. They think people who put any meaningful time into such discussions are geeks.

      When really looking at the massive segment of the public that hat very little interest in IT, beyond the fact that when they turn on their smartphone/computer/tablet that it works. When making statements about what the public thinks, how they will react, what they want, a much much better understanding of the huge segment of the population that those who are IT savvy seldom have lots of contact with is needed. And I seriously expect thats why the general tone of this article by Gewirtz is one of some amount of shock. It shouldn't have been even a little bit shocking because its so common place once you get a little distance away from the IT savvy crowd and those they frequently do have contact with.
  • Agreed and ...

    1. IT should be a mandatory class at school ... and when you leave you should know (religion etc permitting) about drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, family finance ... and 'home computing'.

    2. I am increasingly drawn to the idea of an OPLAN and community cloud facility: that way a lot of the security measures can be provided, leaving only a few things for personal action.
    • Reading, understanding, and common sense should be mandatory

      @johnfenjackson@... I agree with you. All of a sudden now schools are teaching personal finance and I.T. ?!<br> <br>Why they never taught it before was beyond me. The amount of fools that I went to school with or hear about that are in debt trouble [school, credit cards] or in some other financial mess because they don't READ some of all of the fine print of any documents is there fault.<br><br>My beef is, when these people you buy or use these products, services, and equipment, you need to understand how they work and why they work. Don't buy it if you don't have the money or if you don't understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how. <br><br>Schools need to teach the basics of everything a human being would encounter during there lifetime. If you decide to take up the advanced stuff, then go ahead; but when I ask you to perform a 3 way call and you say " I don't know how to do it" or open your web browser to the foreground and open a new tab, and you state "I don't know what that is" then I have lost faith in you already. <br><br>Age is nothing but a number, because these security risks and general stupidity affect every one that don't understand and how to handle the situation when it occurs.
  • RE: Old people scare me

    Ummm - like most comments about age it's tough to generalize. I know many, many boomers and beyond who can run tech circles around their younger brethren. I'm 73, a hard core Mac geek by any standard, and will hold my own with anybody on what is state of the art, trends, technologies or use, etc. regardless of age. I love it when I walk into an Apple store (or other computer store) and am addressed in mono syllable words assuming I don't know a bit from a byte. Good article but no generalizations please. BTW - I find many millennial's technology ignorant as well and beyond texting don't really grasp what can happen beyond the phone or the moment. Should a license apply to them as well?
    • RE: Old people scare me

      @billvick I think he means everyone. If you're too incompetent to avoid even basic threats, you have no business on the internet. I'd be fine with it.
      • who decides?

        that minimum level drivers license doesn't stop 10's of thousands of people getting killed and countless more being disabled, year after year.
        who exactly is going to decide who can be on the internet and who can't? if someone gets their "internet" license and then gets a virus then what?
    • RE: Old people scare me

      @billvick "Should a license apply to them as well?"

      I hate the license idea, but yes, of course. Sadly, the elderly folks we visited with are not ZDNet regulars and are not like y'all, who often are really well aware of what's out there. This is not about putting down our elders, it's about protecting them. If you were listening to them, it'd curl your hair, too. What do you think? How can we get unsafe online users to be safer? How can we protect our parents, grandparents, inlaws, neighbors, etc, when they won't practice safe computing? I'm really looking for good ideas here.
      David Gewirtz
      • community service

        @David Gewirtz <br>take the time to talke with them. <br>with my mom i did a couple of things over the years. mostly explaining to her, time and again, what to do and not to do. i also sat down with some of her friends and went over it. they can't learn unless someone teaches them.<br><br>so she always contacts me if she's unsure about something or will forward something to me to look over. even some of her friends contact me when they have questions. what this has done is create a sense of caution amongst them. this year i also got her a chromebook to replace her aging dell. yes yes, the nerdboys will go on and on about how much "more" you can get for the same price but mom don't do "more", she don't know what it is or where it's located and her eyes will gloss over if you try to explain it to her. since browser is all she does she hasn't missed a beat and it's one less thing i have to worry about (virus, virus update costs, os updates, etc.). it's not for everyone but for mom it works just fine.
      • another thing

        @David Gewirtz
        when i hear of new threats (especially during the holidays) i always forward the article to them. every little bit of information we pass on helps.
      • RE: Old people scare me

        @David Gewirtz

        Old Chinese curse...Be careful of what you wish for, you may get it.

        It happens to ALL of us, we grow older. So some day, David, you are going to be in that same boat you are complaining about now. I have seen the behavior you describe equally in ALL age groups. Putting people in groups like old people is discriminatory and you should know better. It also will happen to you too.
        linux for me
      • RE: Old people scare me

        @David Gewirtz Here???s today???s homework Assignment: Spend time with an elderly family member, and teach the a little about Internet Security. Simply telling them to Avoid IE will help...
      • RE: Old people scare me

        @David Gewirtz If you're looking for answers, look beyond old people. I know a whole lot of people younger than 40 who are dangerous with a computer.
    • I was in my thirties when ...

      I went to work at the Genius Bar. I always assumed that the only way to know the depth of a client's knowledge was to ask them to explain their problem to the best of their ability (saves a lot of time in most cases, too) and then what they've done to address it already, or if they have any ideas about what to try. I found that the "ignorance issue" was only slightly skewed at the elder end of the age range and was HUGELY skewed at the younger end. If age were the only metric, the most even distribution seemed to occur for the 20 to 60 year old subset.

      You cannot assume, you can only investigate, and then educate if needed. Probably a third of my time on the floor was spent educating customers of all ages about their technology so that they wouldn't have to keep coming back to see me. It made for a very happy clientele, all in all. I will say that the ages who couldn't "be bothered" to learn something new were largely under 18 and over 65-70. For those folks you just do the best you can until they come back in the next time.
      • RE: Old people scare me

        @macadam finally, an intelligent post. Instead of finger pointing, and other useless BS. Inform people which helps more than finger pointing..
    • Old people scare me

      @billvick Amen brother. Somewhere one has to define old age. But the author needs to be careful what he is asking for, cause it will come back to bite him.
  • RE: Old people scare me

    I am over 60 and under 70, and have been using, supporting, building, upgrading, and buying computers since the first IBM PC. I am now a big-time Apple user and advocate, but still run a Windows 7 VM or two using Fusion 4 on my 27-inch, 16GB iMac, because there are some Windows apps that simply don't have the functionality in the Mac realm as they do in Windows. I keep everything up to date, don't click on weird e-mails or their attachments, and have an Airport Extreme fire walled up pretty decently. Nonetheless, my biggest fear when my mother was still alive was that someone would give her a PC and get her online. That would have made my life, and my brother's life a living hell, I am sure. A lot of elderly are much too trusting of their fellow humans, and think that malicious things only happen on other peoples' PCs. And then there's the early stage Alzheimer's, or mild cognitive impairment contingent, who by the time the true depth of their problem is recognized by their families or friends, are already unknowingly running virus and trojan infected zombie PCs, and often don't become aware of it until their bank account is drained. Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do about it, and if you need an example, ask any senior what they think about driver license re-testing requirements in some states. So no, I don't think there is much to be done about it, and unless something is done to their PCs that does not require their approval to keep them secure on the internet, it will only get worse, and we know that will not happen. For large numbers of these elderly, some almost totally housebound by physical and mental health issues, the internet is their only link to much of the outside world. A lot of them post on the news site forums all day, and it is evident that they have begun the transition from mild cognitive impairment to the dementia of Alzheimer's. Perhaps that will happen to me some day, but I think I would prefer the 9mm hair dryer to that.
    • Good read


      Well spoken.
  • The elderly have been targeted for scams since before you were born.

    The problem isn't the elderly, the problem is the moral decay of society.