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Cyber Child Safety – What the World Can Learn from Australia

21 Feb 2024
By Professor Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann and Dr Mohiuddin Ahmed
Cyber Safety For Children. Source: DALL·E

The recent US Senate hearings on social media and children safety shed light on the risks for children of cyber bullying, cyber harm, and cyber grooming. Australia has made considerable progress in keeping kids safe in cyber space but can do more to adopt best practices from other nations. 

The current US senate cyber child safety hearings have shed light on a global challenge for policy makers, Tech companies and parents alike: how to keep children safe in cyber space. Cyber bullying, the threat from sexual predators and other malicious cyber actors have been some of the identified cyber threats children are facing in the safety of their homes which can be fatal in the worst case. Tech CEOs and leaders of the biggest social media companies like Meta, X, Snap, and TikTok were told during the hearings last week in Washington that they had “blood on their hands” by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and that they “have a product that’s killing people.” In response to intense questioning and to jeers of parents whose children came to harm, Mark Zuckerberg turned to the families and apologised. This apology is rightly seen as an empty gesture as long as legislators do not reign in social media giants and their products, as the Guardian has recently pointed out 

Cyber-safety for children in an Australian context 

What is the situation in Australia? While coding as a school subject has been introduced in the Australian curriculum as part of teaching digital technologies, children cyber safety as a topic of concern is relatively new. The Internet does not have a version for children as it is accessible to all. Hence, children with Internet-enabled devices have become the main targets for the cyber criminals. A wide range of cyber attacks, including cyber bullying, cyber harm, and cyber grooming and sextortion can be launched when the hackers take control of the devices used by the kids. Although the population of Australia is small compared to other countries, cyber criminals find Australia an attractive target due to its strong economy and the high percentage of Internet users. Australia is ranked as the fifth most powerful cyber nation. 

There are several initiatives taken by the Australian government to address risks to children online and on the internet. One is A Kid’s Guide to Using the Internet Securely! by the Australian Cyber Security Centre which is part of Australian Signals Directorate. This guide is being viewed as a yardstick for future Western child cyber protection. And eSafetyKids by the Australian eSafety Commissioner is another interactive platform where kids can learn to be safe online.  

While these initiatives are not the proverbial silver bullets, they are helpful in minimising cyber risks. In addition, it is the parents who are continuously reminded of cyber hygiene practices to mitigate the cyber risks. But initiatives without legislation lack the necessary bite. For the time being, Australia relies on the Online Safety Act 2021 to make current laws more robust and to make online service providers directly accountable for the online safety of the people who use their services. 

Australia leading the way as cyber safe nation 

Australia is set to be the most cyber secure nation by 2030 as promised by the current government. With such a claim, it is therefore imperative that the cyber safety of the younger generation is one of the government’s priority areas, especially when most of the devices used by children now has integrated webcams. Not too long ago a hacker in the United States hijacked school webcams to produce child pornography. Other examples by the Global Cybersecurity Forum illustrate that 72 percent of children around the world have experienced cyber threats. Given the growing number of cyber incidents involving children, the Australian government must ensure the integration of cyber hygiene requirements for children as part of a wider “integrated whole-of-nation” approach regarding cyber security. 

One place to begin with in this journey is Tik Tok. One of the main Mass Social Media platforms used by generation Z and younger children, Tik Tok has the capability to be employed for malicious purposes, whether by state and/or non-state actors as part of a wider influence operation approach. Tik Tok has been identified as a social media platform where deliberate disinformation and wilful misinformation have been employed as part of a wider cognitive warfare approach. Last year’s Letter to Bin Laden is a more recent identified example. The episode was expressed in viral videos of Gen Z users questioning the motives of Osama Bin Laden and blaming the Washington for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For now, and reflecting the threat posed foreign influence agents, the Australian government has banned TikTok on all government devices in 2023, but more controls are needed. 

Europe’s Child Safety Alliance 

The European Union (EU) has put in place a variety of measures to ensure cyber children safeguards. These include the coordination of safety measures among its member states through the Safer Internet Centres, a multi actor comprehensive approach involving non-governmental organisations and educators through its European Safe Online Initiative, and through the adoption of the new Digital Service Act. This is a commendable act from EU and given the population of the grouping, implementing such an initiative would not be a trivial task. However, Australia will be leveraging its low population and can tighten its attack surface better. 

How Australia’s newest national Cyber Security Strategy can help 

The 2023-2030 Australian Cyber Security Strategy emphasises keeping Australians safe by uplifting the consumer standards for Internet-enabled hardware and software. One of the six shields from the new strategy is focussed on safe technology which will ensure that Internet-enabled devices and services are safer for every Australian, including the kids. Cyber security will be embedded into both software and hardware development practices. Hence, there will be lesser loopholes and smaller attack surfaces that hackers will try to exploit.   

Considering the clear and present danger to children’s health and even lives, one has to ask the question why governments in general (and our government until recently) seem to act swiftly when such cyber operations affect national security but not life and health of our children? Indeed, it is high time for world leaders to connect the dots between national security, cyber threats, and the protection of the younger generation for a sustainable future. 

Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann is Professor in Law and Co-Convener National Security Hub (University of Canberra), University of Canberra, and a Research Fellow with the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University. He is also a Fellow with NATO SHAPE – ACO Office of Legal Affairs where he works on Hybrid Threats and Lawfare. 

Dr Mohiuddin Ahmed is a Senior Lecturer of Computing & Security within School of Science at Edith Cowan University. He is also an affiliate member of National Security Hub at University of Canberra. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.