Cyber education needs to start in primary school: MacGibbon

Australia's Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon wants to see cybersecurity training start in primary school, but said it shouldn't be a case of forcing children to become coders.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australia's Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon wants the understanding of cybersecurity to be a life skill children of today grow up with, which means taking the conversation to primary school classrooms.

While PhD, university, and even high school students should still be gaining powerful knowledge on the threat landscape, MacGibbon would argue this kind of structure isn't enough to ensure the success of Australia when it comes to cybersecurity.

"For me, being a successful person in my generation was being able to read and write and do basic maths," he told ZDNet. "What is going to get our kids to be successful in this world is the concept of computation, coding, and communication."

"If we're going to win when it comes to protecting the Australian way of life, in terms of cybersecurity, then it indeed starts in primary schools."

Primary school-aged students are a marketer's dream; as sponges they absorb everything that is occurring around them, as MacGibbon explained. It is also the age where kids are making their choices in relation to what they aspire to be in life and perhaps more importantly their subject choices.

"If people are self selecting out of having an interest in subjects like maths and science, then we're narrowing the gene pool available to us that we need not just in government but in business to protect ourselves -- and frankly we're probably narrowing our skillset for the average citizen to be protecting themselves," he said.

"This threat environment we're operating in is always rapidly evolving, our adoption of technology, the acceleration of technology is always going to outstrip our -- there's always going to be a gap -- but the key question we need to address is, are we willing to close that gap while knowing we're never going to completely close it? It's about how we lessen it."

A week past the one-year anniversary of the launch of the federal government's Cyber Security Strategy, MacGibbon pointed to the 33 initiatives he previously called ambitious that are funded by around AU$630 million -- including the Defence White Paper -- and said they are worth almost nothing without people.

"Like any good cyber strategy, it has components that put more staff on that wall protecting Australia," he said. "There are more staff for the Australian Signals Directorate, more staff for the Australian Federal Police ... but if all we did was add more staff protecting the wall that stretches around every business, every government entity, and indeed every loungeroom in this country, we would fail dismally."

While MacGibbon knows not every child wants to grow up to be a coder or a cybersecurity expert, he believes just exposing the next generations to the concept of how things work is a win.

"We need everyone to kind of understand that this technology isn't just a pretty piece of something that appears on a glass," he explained. "While you may never be a sophisticated coder, knowing enough about what sits behind that glass gives you power as a consumer and as a citizen.

"To expose them to the types of threats, the types of risk management, and the types of ways technology operates is the equivalent of reading, writing, and arithmetic when we were growing up.

"We [need to] drive this through primary schools, drive this through classrooms, drive this through vocational training, because for far too long we've resorted to our PhDs and our post-graduate courses."

According to MacGibbon, without fundamental cybersecurity building blocks, Australia will fail miserably.

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