Last week I went to Israel. I had a meeting with a government official to discuss internet safety education programs in the country. I also met with several key members of the technical media for interviews. As many questions as I answered, I probably asked more of them. There was so much to learn! As high tech and connected a country as Israel is, they are very much in the early stages of educating their public about keeping safe on the internet.
Very Young Children Have Cell Phones
To begin with, the way kids are handled seems a bit different. It’s quite normal for children, young children, to take public transportation to school. As a result, parents cope by giving children cell phones at much younger ages than would be normal in the US. It’s also a way of easing the nerves of parents when the possibility of terrorist attacks are added to the normal parental worries. At least with a cell phone the child can text or call to confirm they’ve arrived at school or left school for home. According to a news story from 6 years ago, 30% of kindergarten children in Israel carry a mobile phone. I would guess by now, it’s even higher.
Parents Eager to “Friend” Their Kids
Several Israelis admitted to me that they see their fellow parents making the mistake of trying to be a “friend” to their children. This “friend” relationship can prevent a parent from providing rules or requiring internet use to be limited or monitored. One Israeli father asked me how you get a child to friend you on Facebook if the child doesn’t want to. That’s not easy, I know, but what if I told you that many Israeli families flaunt the Facebook rules and allow young kids to create accounts? Now re-imagine that scene between the father and son where the son is only 8 years old!
Innovation and Tech Start Ups Common
The Internet is widely available throughout the country. In the heart of Jerusalem’s modern area on Ben Yehuda Street (a pedestrian mall filled with boutiques and popular restaurants), wifi is available for free. So it’s entirely common to see people enjoying the mild weather, sipping a coffee from the nearby Starbucks or Coffee Bean shops and clicking away on their laptop or iPad. Israel is also renowned for being a nexus for high tech start-ups. A popular non-fiction book called Start Up Nation depicts the many successful new companies that had their start in Israel. There are more Israeli companies listed on the tech-oriented NASDAQ than from all the European countries, India and China combined.
Tech is Crucial to Security
While I was in Israel, the New York Times ran a story revealing the Israeli and US government (alleged) involvement in the creation of the Stuxnet virus that damaged the Iranian capacity to produce nuclear power. Every Israeli I spoke with, from government contacts to average folks at a party, was knowledgeable about the story (they are a nation addicted to the news) but concerned about the publicity. “Wouldn’t it be better to have this capability but not have it so directly known” was a common concern.
If you’ve ever flown El Al Airlines to get to Israel, you’re familiar with their unsettling multi-layered approach to security. Using wireless devices, hidden earpieces to coordinate questions with unseen supervisors and other methods, the airlines’ staff is each the product of many years of security training. When I mentioned to a staffer that I worked for Symantec, he asked me if I’d read about Stuxnet. It’s not your average TSA employee who is familiar with cutting edge malware threats.
Internet Safety Education Available but Not Widespread
When I met with members of the Israeli media, I could tell there were other differences. First, there are simply no ongoing public education programs to discuss internet safety issues. One day per year, the Ministry of Education in partnership with Microsoft sends staff to each school for an event on online safety. There are only a few Israeli non-profits to compare with the US’s Family Online Safety Institute, the IkeepSafe Coalition, WebWiseKids, E-Safe, and many, many other fine organizations. Some of them include the Association for Safer Internet Use, and the Israel Internet Association. They lack the cooperative efforts of our National Cyber Security Alliance’s Cyber Safety Awareness Month when government, corporations and non-profits join in a single message throughout October. There may be dedicated internet safety websites or educational materials available from the government such as the NetCetera guide from the FTC but I couldn’t find a single consumer who knew about them.
Israel Still Believes in the Online Predator Myth
My final surprise about the family safety environment in Israel is to find that they have missed out on the findings of the Berkman Center study that put to rest the myth of widespread online predation. Both in interviews held with the media while in Israel and in a telephone interview held after my return, the reporters asked me about the issue and wanted to know how big a problem online predation was in the US. I hope by sharing the information from the Berkman Center study and the research available from credible institutions in the US, I could be a small part of helping Israelis better understand the nature of online risks. In addition to providing tips for stopping online predation should it arise, I discussed with them the much more common online problems of cyberbullying, identity theft and encountering malware in various forms. I can only hope my message was heard.
Helping Israel Catch Up in Online Safety Education
Overall, my time in Israel was incredibly meaningful and educational. Despite being a country filled with early adopters of the latest technical gadgets (I met several people who had just returned from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as I had), Israel has some catching up to do to provide a better understanding of online threats and the techniques available to avoid them. Neighbor country Egypt can provide a good example. In February, Egypt will play host to an international FOSI conference on a Safer Internet. Sponsored by the Egyptian First Lady, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarek, the conference will bring together representatives from a variety of Egyptian and International constituencies to discuss ways to promote digital citizenship in Egypt. I’m confident that a similar collaborative conference would be successful in Israel.