Due to the coronavirus health emergency, many school districts are closed across the country. While school officials struggle to provide online alternatives and home schooling is not an option for many busy parents, it’s inevitable that children will become bored and restless. Likely, many children and teens will turn to the excitement, fast pace and fun of participating in social media and gaming. However, it’s important for young people to understand the dangers as well, said Gabrielle Jackson, a cybersecurity analyst for U.S. Army Human Resources Command, in an article for the Fort Knox News.
This 24-year-old has an active, vibrant following on some networks that would rival most casual users, including more than 8,000 followers on her Instagram account and over 200 on Twitch, according to the article, “ Army cybersecurity: Social media platforms offer children exciting, frightening environments,” by Eric Pilgrim.
On her live-streaming Twitch shows, Jackson said she receives a lot of encouragement, but she invariably also receives suggestive, unwanted chatter.
Jackson and other Army cybersecurity experts explained that the virtual landscape of online communications is changing so fast, it leaves many in the cybersecurity business scrambling to update security controls. In the daily deluge of new and trendy sites — critical safeguards that parents and cybersecurity professionals alike assume are in place for children – may be missing.
According to some media accounts, TikTok might be the most popular site for teenagers. App analytics site Sensor Tower reported TikTok was downloaded 1.5 billion times since last November, according to Business Insider. “The short, punchy user-generated videos, which include live-streaming shows, are catchy and engaging; they also draw sexual predators, pedophiles and human traffickers,” Jackson warned.
Jackson said one major problem is that the average age on TikTok is about 13. This number suggests there are children watching streaming videos and even producing them who are much younger than the minimum age required to join.
TikTok's U.S. Terms of Service page states, "If you are under age 18, you may only use the Services with the consent of your parent or legal guardian. Please be sure your parent or legal guardian has reviewed and discussed these Terms with you."
Yet, according to a report in The Sun newspaper in February 2019, British children as young as 8 were being groomed by sexual predators through TikTok. Jackson said many of the streaming sites like TikTok provide anonymity making it easier for criminals to hide their real identity and target children.
What many teens don't realize, said Jackson, is that criminals who seek to harm them go where they go. Those same criminals are taking advantage of the anonymous features built into the apps that appeal to children and young adults, making it extremely difficult to know who is legitimate online.
Department of Defense Warning
The Defense Information Systems Agency recommended that all Defense Department employees not install the TikTok app on their phones or uninstall it if they already have it on their devices in a Dec. 16 cyber awareness message. DISA said the recommendation is due to the “potential risk associated with using the TikTok app.” DISA also urged DoD personnel to "research the company history and ownership for any suspicious foreign connections or ownership" before downloading any app.
In December, the Department of Defense banned its use on government-issued mobile devices and has voiced concerns that TikTok is suspected of being used for other nefarious activities.
"It is considered a cyber-threat," said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa, in a Dec. 31, 2019, Military.com interview.
Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command blocked TikTok from government-issued mobile devices and the Navy’s U.S. Fleet Cyber Command / U.S. 10th Fleet banned its use in December.
Facial Recognition Software — and Deepfakes
The cybersecurity Network Enterprise Center team at Fort Knox said children are unaware and unsuspecting of the risks associated with using TikTok. Further, a growing number of video and photo apps use a revolutionary new facial recognition software that allows users to pose as someone else. Known as Deepfake, the software created by ByteDance, another Chinese-owned technology company, has had an explosive increase in popularity.
"The Deepfake can basically superimpose your face onto any video, or any picture, or anything," said Richard Jackson, Cybersecurity Division chief at Fort Knox. "It's getting more and more difficult to discern whether that's a real video or a fake video. The folks who are trying to ensure authenticity are outnumbered a-hundred-to-one by the folks who are trying to prevent you from determining the authenticity."
The list of apps using Deepfake is also growing as the technology gets better. These include Zao, AvengeThem, MachineTube, DeepFaceLab, Deep Art, Face Swap Live and Microsoft's Face Swap, Fort Knox cyber experts said in the article.
Richard Jackson said computer-generated imagery, popularly known as CGI, is at least partly to blame for these advances in technology. The need for moviemakers to produce breathtaking crowds, otherworldly scenes and phenomenal stunts has led to great advances in CGI generation. Computer-generated cinematography has gotten so good, NVIDIA Corporation created a website last year called "This Person Does Not Exist," in which an AI algorithm generates what looks to be portraits of real people with every click of the mouse. According to the site, however, none of them exist in real life.
Many of the well-known social media apps have incorporated facial recognition and facial altering software, including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. As fun and hilarious as these images can be, Richard Jackson warned of the sinister potential hidden within.
"Some of those apps have actually been known to send your pictures [to] other places," he said. "They're mining pictures off of your phone as you're using their app, or targeting ads to you."
Gabrielle Jackson cautioned that several apps are produced in foreign countries, posing inherent security problems.
"We don't know what's in these kinds of apps," Ms. Jackson said. "With any kind of app that's made in another country that we can't 100% verify, or even any app made in the USA that we can't verify as being secure, a lot of times security is on the backburner on purpose."
Even the most common apps can have features and "standard" policies that most users either—don’t understand—or don’t read.
Brian Delap, an Information Assurance Compliance tech with Fort Knox NEC, warns that everything produced on Facebook is considered the property of Facebook, to include photos, videos and information.
"That's in their End Users License Agreement," said Delap. "So if you take a picture of your family and post it, don't be surprised if you go to Europe and your family [photo] is on a billboard."
Delap said it's for this reason that he doesn't have a social media footprint: that, and because technology is constantly in flux.
"It's hard to keep up," said Delap. "Every 10 minutes it changes."
Eric Groves, a 25-year-old IT specialist on Richard Jackson's team, said Facebook's controls are at least one reason why many teens are ditching the older social media platforms for new up-and-coming platforms that promise vanishing posts and anonymity.
"The whole family has Facebook, so kids may feel like they're being censored. They're going to Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter; stuff like that, where it has less of a family presence," Groves said in the article.
Ironically, all social media apps are heading in the same direction with facial recognition and other “fun” features, said Groves, largely due to growing popularity by teens and pre-teens that make the newer apps appealing.
Even worse, according to Delap: "Parents have no clue what their kids are listening to, or who they're talking to. It can get pretty scary out there, and if you do it or say it, it stays out there."
The Pitfalls of Gaming
Delap warned that the gaming world is another hotbed of potential for criminals to try to lure children; whether the game is Fortnite or Minecraft.
"Any game where kids congregate, you're going to have the creepies going around looking for them," Delap said.
Locator services add another layer of danger within certain social media apps.
"Snapchat has this thing that if a youth or adult adds where they live, Snapchat creates a map of what general area they're located in," Thomas said in the article. "It makes it easy to find people."
Both Gabrielle Jackson and the cybersecurity team at the Fort Knox Network Enterprise Center offer some suggestions to help parents and children have a safe, fun social media experience. The list is by no means an exhaustive one:
- Be cautious about the apps you download — find out where they originate; read about them from other sources.
- Turn off the locator feature on your smartphone — it lets others know where you are.
- When gaming, turn off in-game chat and use an anonymous username, if possible. Don't let others know who you are.
- Use an avatar or symbolic image (flower, colorful object) for a profile picture.
- Block unwanted users quickly.
- Post a "No DMs (direct messaging) accepted" announcement on your profile page, and shut down the feature, if possible.
- Lock down your profile, if feasible, so others must request a follow to see your information; then screen all followers before accepting them.
- Don't check into places you visit when traveling; turn off geotagging on photos.
- Don't link social media sites together; it makes it easy for someone to data mine information about you.
- Be smart with security questions and passwords; don't use obvious choices, like “password123.”
At the heart of awareness is safeguarding children, Jackson said.
"Sometimes, kids film themselves to songs that they don't necessarily understand the words to, or they're dancing as kids do, and what might be innocent to them is actually enticing predators," Jackson said for the article. "Oftentimes, parents don't even know because there are no parental controls set up… Talk to your children. Make sure you have open communication with them.”
The dangers of sharing personal information on social media are real.
"Oftentimes, predators try to brainwash children, and they know how to persuade them – they've done it before,” Jackson said. “Explain those real dangers to your kids and the need to take precautions. Then help them take those precautions.”
Editor’s Note: Reuters reported March 11 that TikTok is launching a "Transparency Center" to be opened at TikTok's “Los Angeles office where external experts will oversee its operations,” the company said in its blog bit.ly/2vNzjsv. The center would later provide information about the app’s source code, the proprietary internal instructions of the software owned by the Chinese company, and offer more details on privacy and security, Reuters reported. However, for all U.S. Department of Defense military and civilian personnel the TikTok app is still banned on all government-owned mobile devices.
Edited and adapted from the article, “ Army cybersecurity: Social media platforms offer children exciting, frightening environments,” by Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox News.
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