The Internet Got Hacked. Should Teens Worry About Cybersecurity Too?

10.21.16
Illustration by Desmond Meagley

OK, so you don’t have to be Reddit or Spotify to worry about getting hacked these days. It’s a scary world out there for anyone with a smart phone — particularly when you’re a minor. Every news story about a hacked celebrity selfie or teen sexting scandal is a reminder that the information we document digitally has the potential to put us at risk. But for teens, completely opting out of digital nativehood isn’t realistic. So how’s a young person supposed to stay connected AND minimize the risks to their privacy?

Youth Radio’s Amber Ly walks us through one technique — threat modeling.


Like most teens, I love my phone — it’s better than any boyfriend, that’s for sure. I use it for everything I do. Listening to my own personal soundtrack gets me through the day. Updating my Snapchat story reminds my classmates that I do actually have a life. I reach my parents with just one speed-dial call. I connect with my cousins from across the world with a tap of a button.

So yeah, I like to think my phone and I have a great thing going. But like any relationship, my phone and I have some issues.

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

Your phone collects data constantly. It’s like a river, always flowing with information. But it can also leak data — including my location, photos and texts. On the one hand, I put this kind of stuff online all the time. Whenever I post pictures on my Instagram, I try to tag my location. In this case, I’m intentionally putting it out there.

But what if I were to say your phone can do that without your even knowing?

Now, you might be thinking, “It’s not like I have anything to hide on my phone. I’m an open book.”

Alright. Try this.

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

Set up a roundtable and gather a group of people. Have everyone take out their phones. Now, hand your phone to the person on your right.

Now your head might be racing. “Why isn’t my phone password protected? Did I listen to any dumb music lately? Oh my God, no one is allowed to look at any of the selfies I have on my phone. There is a reason those never got posted anywhere.” Or wait, is that just me?

Imagine these people around the table getting full access to your phone. What could they find?

So, before anyone freaks out, there’s a preemptive measure we can all use to avoid any bad situations. I present to you (with thanks and credit to the Electronic Frontier Foundation): threat modeling.

The idea behind threat modeling is to make sure that what you want to be protected, stays protected. All it takes is putting in some extra thinking. Simple enough.

Ask yourself five questions:

1. What do you want to protect?

2. Who do you want to protect it from?

3. How likely is it that you will need to protect it?

4. How bad are the consequences if you fail?

5. How much trouble are you willing to go through in order to try to prevent those?


A Threat Modeling Case Study: The Sexy Selfie

by Storm White and Teresa Chin

OK, let’s try a threat modeling scenario. Suppose your crush asks you to send over a provocative picture of yourself. “Hmmmm…. okaaaaaay,” you think. Why not at least consider your options?

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

First you have the power to decide what you show — and what you don’t. Maybe you decide to hide your face. Maybe you decide to keep it PG-13. Maybe you decide life is short and you go for the whole birthday outfit on display.

Now before you send that photo, it’s time to consider who you’d LEAST want to get a hold of that selfie. Your parents? Your classmates? Your teachers? Your future boss? The police?

(by the way, if you are a minor, you should seriously consider the police threat option. Having nude selfies of yourself could put you at risk for child pornography charges. Yes, really.)

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

At this point, you need to ask yourself how likely it is that your biggest threat will get a hold of your photo. Note that that’s not the same as worrying aboutanyone getting a hold of that pic. For example, maybe you know your mom checks your phone when you’re not around, but you’re fine with her seeing your selfie. At this stage, you’re focusing just on ways the people or organizations you’re worried about might get your data.

So how might someone get a hold of your data? Well, it’s not just a matter of how much you trust your crush! Keep the medium in mind too; sharing info over certain social media platforms carries a different risk than, say, texting the photo, or showing it to someone and then keeping it on your password-protected phone. Ah, but what about apps like Snapchat that claim to delete your data after a time period that you set? It’s not a bad option, but remember that no medium is 100% safe. Even if you Snapchat that photo for literally a second, there’s a chance the person you sent it to could screen shot it and keep it on their phone, which could fall into the wrong hands.

It’s getting close to decision-time. Just a few more scary thoughts before you decide how to handle the situation. Take a moment and consider the consequences if the worst happens. How bad can it get? Are we talking minor embarrassment or jail time?

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

Illustration by Desmond Meagley

OK. You’ve done a lot of thinking — now it’s late and you have five more texts from your crush asking about that sexy selfie. Time to figure out just how much work you’re willing to do to keep yourself safe.

Maybe you go for it. Or you tone down the steaminess of that selfie. Or you send it through what you consider a safer medium. Or you don’t send it at all.

Whatever your decision, threat modeling is designed to help you navigate the scary parts of digital privacy. You don’t have to care about all types of privacy breaches all of the time, but it’s a pretty good idea to be mindful of the stuff you DO care about.

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