Sunday, 25 June 2017

A pervasive persuasion: the need to protect our children in a digital age

Last Sunday was Father’s Day here in the UK. It is day used to celebrate Fathers that has its origins in the Middle Ages, when it was then celebrated in March. About 100 years ago many countries, including the UK adopted the current June date, made popular in the US.  For the first time in many years I celebrated the day with just W and myself at the House in Scotland. However, the children had sent gifts and cards, one of which was a rather splendid cockerel. Carved out of wood, with bicycle cogs for tail feathers and comb and bicycle chains for wings. These were all parts from my son-in-law Stewart’s bike, a bike that had travelled some 2500 miles in the last 12 months. The cockerel is a thing of beauty, and Stewart was the surprising artist!

Of course these days geographical distance is not a problem for staying in touch with others, and on Father’s Day I was able to Skype, Facetime and speak over the phone with family. I could also do all of this on my new phone, an iPhone, the first one I had ever owned. It was a great to discover that I could replicate everything I had been doing on my iPad on this phone. So I got it set up with emails, Twitter, Skype and so on and all was well. That is until one of my friends persuaded me to down load WhatsApp – an encrypted messaging service. I had never used it before and didn’t know that I would use it – but I was persuaded to get the app.

What I also discovered was that apart from using the phone as set up in the shop everything else, including downloading apps required an Apple ID and Password. Whilst I had one of these from years ago when I invested a great deal of time uploading my entire CD collection onto iTunes, I hadn’t used it for years. And as soon as I did I realised why. Suddenly I was up in the cloud, with demands for access codes to all my devices and generally getting twisted into knots of security and instructions and all for something I didn’t really want in the first place. Eventually it was installed and I sent out a WhatsApp message to my WhatsApp contacts – but I’ve heard nothing since.

I think I must be missing something as whilst Facebook (WhatsApp’s parent company) remains the most widely used social media service, WhatsApp is said to be becoming one of the most popular ways people both discover and discuss news. I’m from that generation that still goes to the BBC for my news, albeit more often than not, to BBC on-line. It’s amazing to note that it was only 50 years ago, in the June of 1967, that the Beatles performed ‘All you need is Love’ live on the BBC’s first live global broadcast! Many young people today shun the BBC (as being untrustworthy and biased in their reporting), preferring to use other services like WhatsApp to hear the news.

It’s perhaps easy to understand why. WhatsApp uses an end-to-end encryption approach which means messages can only be seen by the senders and recipients – crucial in countries where the political regimes monitor social media and where critical voices are often dealt with harshly. Social media increasingly gives those without a voice an opportunity to be heard, to articulate a point of view in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. We only have to look at the way the Labour Party very successfully harnessed social media in the recent general election to see how large numbers of the population can be reached, and given an opportunity to have their voice heard.

There are risks of course. In the UK, freedom of expression and the protection of our privacy over the internet is guaranteed by law. Some social media users abuse these rights and ‘troll’ others (sending menacing and or upsetting messages) and sometimes to such an extent that it can cause mental health problems and in some extreme cases, people ending their life through suicide. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable. The NSPCC reported that one in five 8 to 11 year olds and seven in ten 12 to 15 year olds has a social media profile. 1 in 4 children have reported experiencing something upsetting on a social networking site, and 1 in 3 children have been a victim of cyberbullying.

There were some 5653 child sex crimes committed against children in 2016/17 that had an on-line element. 13 was the most common age of the targeted children, and nearly 100 offences were committed against children 10 years and under. The Internet Watch Foundation, established in 1996, and now an independent international organisation which receives, assesses, and traces public complaints about on-line child sexual abuse content found over 57000 web sites containing child sexual abuse images. They access a webpage every 5 minutes, every 9 mins that webpage shows a child being sexually abused. In 1996, the UK hosted 18% of the world’s known online child sexual abuse material. Thanks to their work, and the commitment of major internet service providers, today the UK hosts just 0.2%. 

So I worry about encrypted services such as WhatsApp. It has some 1 billion users worldwide, and WhatsApp does have an image sharing facility. It is to be remembered that the Westminster bridge terror attacker, Khalid Masood, sent a WhatsApp message minutes before he attacked, an encrypted message that to this day cannot be accessed by the police and intelligence services. I’ve removed the WhatsApp application from my phone, a slightly puny protest I know, but I am from the generation that still goes to the BBC to learn about what’s happening and what’s up, not WhatsApp.