Most of the teachers who communicate to tell me what they emphasize in their groups rate security quite high. From some of the course outlines that I have been given, it almost looks like security issues are given more time than the actual functions of interest such as sending and receiving e-mail and keeping folders orderly.
Is that reasonable? Certainly several of my clients have been the victims of trojans, viruses, mega-spam, and you name it. If it’s malware, they’ve seen it. However, most, if not all, of these problems could have been avoided with some relatively simple software and a few words of caution.
When I get new clients, I like to make sure their machines are clean, and clean them out if they need it. Then I make sure they are set up with some decent protection that will run automatically without them worrying about it. I tell them to stay away from questionable sites and never click on anything offering free anything. Finally I warn them to never open attachments, even from trusted friends, unless they can confirm independently that the friend sent them and even then only with care. With that, I set off to get them going on whatever it is they want to do.
Only after they become reasonably confident and sure of themselves in the basic tasks do I return to a more in-depth explanation of the nature of various attacks and how they can be thwarted in principle. Getting into security and anti-spam is a bit like buying insurance. What is best for you depends on your habits and your comfort zone in facing risks.
Part of the reason I delay getting heavily into worrying about security at first is just that – it’s a worry. I want students to have some positive experiences before they have to face reality by themselves. The best way to do this is to run interference for them – but only for a while! Eventually they have to strike out on their own.
There is another aspect to how one presents security issues. There is a natural decrease in anxiety with familiarity. As a reasonably heavy user with several accounts and active e-mail, getting attacked is nothing new for me. But you can bet that I still remember the mixture of horror, fear, anger, and disgust that accompanied that first attack! Then there was the time my wife asked why her machine was suddenly making funny disc noises. With a presence of mind that often escapes me, I pulled the plug and saved most of her hard disc, which had been told to erase itself. Both incidents were years ago, and now we have accommodated to the point that one of us feels left out if the other gets a new type of attack first.
So the bottom line is that I try to make life somewhat falsely enjoyable for beginners by protecting them in as transparent a way as I can while they become comfortable and learn the new skills they need to do the functions they want. Then I help them learn the skills they need to continue to enjoy those functions in spite of the slimeballs out in cyberspace who waste perfectly good brainpower generating malware. At no time should a new student be left vulnerable. Finding a machine has been compromised can set them back or even turn them off entirely.
If a student does suffer an attack or get flooded with spam and spyware, the best thing to do is to clean it up, explain quietly how it probably happened, install the appropriate protection, and press on.
After all, they also have to learn how to defrag and clean up folders.
For more in-depth tips on tutoring seniors, see the complete tutorial here. I also have posted a tutorial on elementary decision theory for those who might question a physician’s diagnosis (important for seniors) or anti-terrorist activities (important for everyone) but haven’t had the framework to analyze the data. That tutorial can be found here.