In the first months of this year, Portugal was hit by an unprecedented wave of cyberattacks against public and private entities, both in terms of impact and media coverage.
The increase in threats is real and is evidenced by all indicators, which also show that the level of preparedness of users and companies is not evolving at the same pace. Therefore, it is necessary to strengthen the training and awareness campaigns.
But are we really in a digital world that is becoming increasingly unsafe? In fact, there are many threats to internet security, and many of them are historical: the truth is that the internet was not developed with security in mind.
Threats come from a variety of actors, from cyber criminals to states to individuals with different agendas. "These actors exploit the technical weaknesses of the systems, but also the human weaknesses in the use of those same systems, and that is one of the trends that is continuing, which is the exploitation of human weaknesses in the use of digital technologies, particularly through phishing and various social engineering techniques” (the manipulation of people).
Simultaneously with the technological development, the attack methods that exploit the ignorance of users are also evolving. This digital illiteracy is also "the result of an accelerated digital transformation that is not keeping up with society's pace of adaptation, and underscores that literacy alone is not the solution to everything”.
Even if one is literate, sometimes being careful and attentive is not enough. In both personal and professional contexts, the care we take when using passwords or responding to emails, for example, is critical to our security and that of the organisations to which we belong.
Cybersecurity threats can include organised crime and geopolitical influence strategies. But so can those arising from normal social relationships, which often find the internet a catalyst for violence and aggression. Again, it is important to be vigilant because they can be part of criminal activity and are unhealthy, especially from a psychological and social perspective.
Does more time spent on the internet imply an increased risk?
Data from international consultancy data.ai, formerly known as App Annie, shows that by 2021, 7 out of 10 minutes spent online will be spent on social networks or photo and video apps. And time spent online is also increasing. According to the analysis, users worldwide spent 950 billion hours connected to their Android smartphones.
The Portuguese Safer Internet Centre acknowledges that the more time spent online and the more people using it, the greater the risks. There is more visibility in terms of threat actors and more interception opportunities with the means used to catch victims, but also problems of imbalance. In this context, it is possible to point out the risk that excessive use of the internet, as well as any other medium, can pose to the psychological balance of the individual in relation to other dimensions of life, an aspect studied, for example, by cyberpsychology.
However, in a context of increasing digitalisation, a more general and prolonged use could be an inevitable consequence. In this case, it is necessary to compensate for this use by increasing care so that it becomes natural.
Also, the pandemic context we experienced almost two years ago, leading to periods of enforced isolation, with increased use of digital media for communication, study and work, replacing personal activities with digital ones, has a non-negligible impact that is still difficult to measure.
The consequences that this situation will have on young people in the post-pandemic period are not yet known. Only with time will it be possible to make this assessment. However, it must be assumed that certain uses that arose during the pandemic will persist and continue to be used after the pandemic.
The increase in user numbers may also mean that many of the new users do not yet have the necessary knowledge of Internet security, which is an additional problem.
Are only the youngest the weakest targets?
Often concerns about internet safety focus on the youngest, who people want to protect from violent, sexual and extremist content, as well as from unsolicited, provocative or threatening contact, such as online bullying. The Portuguese Safer Internet Centre confirms that the youngest are often the ones who are more aware of internet safety. The risk they face can be mitigated by being more knowledgeable. On the other hand, young people are at a stage in life that has particular characteristics that may encourage risky behaviour and their knowledge of best practises may not be applied.
As for older age groups, they clearly have a less conscious discourse. They use digital technologies less, but when they do, they sometimes take risks out of ignorance.
So it makes sense to talk about specific groups precisely because we see differences in cybersecurity in terms of age, education and gender: Younger people and people with higher education tend to be more aware. However, since we are talking about perceptions based on studies, we cannot say for sure what specific cyber hygiene measures individuals take, but we can at least identify different levels of awareness on the subject.
More transparency is needed
One of the most important factors for a healthy use of technologies is transparency. Since technologies determine the variety of choices we can make in our daily lives through the functions they provide, it is very important to understand the criteria by which the applications and digital platforms we use are configured. For example, if technologies lead to more dependency and compulsive use, and this is encouraged by certain configurations resulting from opaque algorithms, then this could be known and included in the public discussion.
Find out more about the work of the Portuguese Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.