Category Archives: social media

Is Your Child Being Cyberbullied? What Parents Need to Know

cyberbullying

In this season of social distancing, teens need their friends more than ever. Daily digital connection — through texting, video chat, social networks, and gaming — is critical to keeping friend groups strong. But could increased time online these days lead to an increase in cyberbullying?

While there isn’t data to answer that question definitively, it wouldn’t be surprising for parents to notice some signs of conflict surface as the months continue to creep by. And, with re-open dates for schools in limbo, it’s more important than ever to keep the family safety conversation humming.

For clarity: Allowing more screen time doesn’t mean more cyberbullying or conflict is certain to occur. However, experience has taught us that more screen time does increase the potential for digital conflict.

Social and Emotional Fallout

This unprecedented health event hasn’t been easy on anyone, but kids especially are likely to be holding onto some big emotions about it. A recent Common Sense Media study confirms that social media has been key to helping kids get through this crisis, but one in four kids surveyed feels “more lonely than usual.”

The school year with its milestones — proms, graduations, dates, parties — ended abruptly. It’s logical to assume these losses have sparked feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, and anxiety. And because online is where most kids connect with peers, these emotions can easily play out there in the form of aggressive behavior, conflict, or persistent drama.

Digital Awareness

cyberbullying

So how do you know if your child is being cyberbullied or dealing with conflict online? It isn’t always easy simply because so many kids won’t admit to being bullied. Often they believe telling an adult will make the harassment worse. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed about a regretful situation or the fact that they’re being targeted in the first place. For that reason, one of the best ways to help your child is to be aware of the time they spend online, the people they connect with, and how those digital circles impact their wellbeing.

What to Look For

The many forms of cyberbullying continue to evolve alongside the digital culture. Here are just a few ways kids bully one another.

 

  • Saying hurtful or intimidating things to someone on social media, a text, or email.
  • Making negative comments about a person’s sexuality, race, religion, handicaps, or physical features.
  • Camouflaging hurtful or threatening comments with words like “jk” (just joking).
  • Asking online friends to vote for or against another person, with Instagram polls or captions such as “Is this person hot or not?” or “Would you go out with this person?”
  • Posting or sharing with others the private photos, memes, emails, texts, or secrets without the permission of another person.
  • Intentionally posting unflattering or embarrassing photos of another person.
  • Spreading rumors or false information about another person online.
  • Making any threat to another person no matter how harmless you think it may be.

Signs of Cyberbullying

If your child is getting bullied online, there are some potential signs.

  • Anxious or upset after reading a text, frequently gets sick or nauseous, declines invitations from friends, or bows out of fun family outings.
  • Trouble sleeping or being withdrawn or moody.
  • Being protective of his or her phone, deleting or deactivating social networks
  • Sudden loss of a steady friend group or sudden complaining about once-loved friends.
  • Loss of interest in favorite sports or hobbies or a decline in grades.
  • References to suicide, loneliness, and hopelessness (when severe bullying is taking place).

Know Where They Go

Another way to understand your child’s emotional connection to his or her digital communities is to learn about their favorite platforms and monitor them. Pay specific attention to the tone of his or her social threads. And, if you see concerning comments or posts, ask your child how you can help. If your child is using risky apps such as WhatsApp or Kik, that allows people to use the app anonymously, discuss your concerns with your child. Some social networks are more conducive to cyberbullying than others.

Monitor Gaming Communities

Gaming time can skyrocket during the summer, and when games get competitive, cyberbullying can happen. Spend time with your child while he or she is gaming. Listen to the tone of the conversations and be aware of your child’s demeanor. For your child’s physical and emotional health, make every effort to set gaming limits as summer approaches.

Parenting Moves to Avoid

Bullying experts will tell you that what you don’t do if your child is getting bullied is often as important as what you do. Here’s some insight:

1) Never advise a child to ignore the bullying. 2) Never blame a child for being bullied even if he or she did something to aggravate the bullying. No one deserves to be bullied. 3) As angry as you feel that someone is bullying your child, do not encourage your child to fight back physically. 4) Don’t overreact; escalate accordingly. If you can identify the bully, consider talking with the child’s parents. 5) Don’t lead the charge. Give your child veto power over your involvement. If they say they don’t want you to get involved (unless you suspect physical danger or suicide), respect that. 6) If the bullying continues to escalate, report it, seek help from school counselors or the police if necessary. 7) Even if you are fearful, don’t take your child’s digital devices away. He or she didn’t do anything wrong.

Online Resources

A number of organizations are leading the charge against cyberbullying and have fantastic resources for families. Here are just a few: Cyberbullying Research CenterStopBullying.govStompOutBullying.orgKindCampaign.comItGetsBetter.orgNational Bullying Prevention Center. If you’d like your organization added to this list, please leave a comment.

We hope you and your family are staying healthy these days and finding some time to talk about online safety. If you need a refresher, read Part I and Part II of our Online Safety Basics series. And, if you’re looking for a fun school lesson for the day, you can always quiz your kids on any of McAfee’s Family Safety content!

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Is Cyber Bullying Just Kids Being Mean On Social Media, Or Is There More To It?

Whilst there are many definitions out there, to me cyberbullying is any form of communication that is aimed at hurting or embarrassing a specific target. From my personal experience, it has been often used in an attempt by the bully to raise themselves above their target and/or discredit the target. Working within the cybersecurity field, […]… Read More

The post Is Cyber Bullying Just Kids Being Mean On Social Media, Or Is There More To It? appeared first on The State of Security.

Internet Safety for Kids: A Refresher for Homebound Families

internet safety for kids

Editor’s Note: This is part II of our internet safety for kids series. Part I focuses on younger children and can be read here.

Parents have always been concerned about keeping their kids safe online — especially their tweens and teens. That conversation is even more critical with parents and kids now working and learning at home. But as the days turn into weeks, the line between safe and risky digital behavior may get a little blurry. Maybe we can help by refreshing some basics.

Why is internet safety for kids important?

There’s no way around it. Young and old, over time, we’ve tethered nearly every aspect of our lives to the digital realm. If we want to work, bank, shop, pay bills, or connect with family and friends, we have to plugin. A wired life makes internet safety not just important, but mission-critical for parents.

Kids go online for school, to be entertained, and to connect with friends; only they don’t have the emotional maturity or critical thinking skills to process everything they will encounter on the other side of their screens.

That’s where proactive digital parenting comes in.

If our parenting goal is to raise wise, responsible, caring adults, equipped for real life, that goal must also include helping them safeguard their emotional and physical health from online risk. There’s no such thing as a digital platform or product that is 100% safe. So, our best strategy is to learn and pass on skills that mitigate that risk.

What are the dangers of the internet?

Any danger that exists offline is potentially multiplied when we log online due to the vast access the web affords each one of us. In a few clicks, we can unlock a world of possibilities. The flip side? There’s an ever-present battalion of crooks and bullies out to exploit that access. Online we will encounter the best and the worst of humankind. The daily threats to children include bullying, inappropriate content, predators, and the loss of privacy. Add to that list, digital viruses and malware, phishing scams, sharing regrettable content, and gaming addiction.

How can homebound kids avoid digital risk?

So what can we do to ensure the weeks ahead don’t bring more digital risk into our homes? We start by having consistent, candid conversations with our kids about online safety (even if eye-rolling begins). Truth: Your family’s cybersecurity is as strong as the weakest security link in your family. If one family member is lax about internet safety, your entire family’s security is compromised.

So let’s get started with some internet safety basics to share with your tweens and teens. To read internet safety guidelines for younger children, click here.

11 Internet Safety Basics for Homebound Teens

internet safety for kids

  1. Get candid about content. Your tweens and teens have likely come across inappropriate material online. You can minimize further exposure by discussing expectations and family values around acceptable content — both sharing it and receiving it. Reminder: “Vanishing” Snapchats and deleted content can be easily captured in a screenshot — nothing shared online is private. For extra monitoring muscle, consider adding a parental control software to your family’s internet safety plan.
  2. Keep passwords, software, apps updated. Being homebound gives us all extra time for details. Go through personal and family devices and update all passwords. Keeping device software and apps updated also protects kids from outside risk.
  3. Balance life and tech. Kids can lose their entire day surfing, scrolling, and watching YouTube or TikTok videos. Establish screen limits help kids grow healthy tech habits. Consider scheduling device breaks, no phone zones (dinner table, movie time, bedtime), and installing software that features time limits.
  4. Be a leader online. Yoda was on target — with much power comes much responsibility. Many online dangers can be diminished by consistently teaching kids to be upstanders online. Practicing empathy, respect, tolerance, and compassion makes the digital world safer for everyone.
  5. Address peer pressure. Kids with devices can share unwise, personal photos with friends they trust. When friendships end, however, those photos can be shared or used for bullying or extortion. Discuss digital peer pressure with your child and how to respond.
  6. Look out for scams. Talk frequently about the many forms scams can take, such as phishing, malware, catfishing, fake news, and clickbait.
  7. Don’t friend strangers. Sexual predators create fake social media accounts specifically to befriend kids. In turn, kids share personal info, daily plans, location, and may even agree to meet in person with online friends. Discuss these risky scenarios and other manipulation tactics of predators with your child. Be aware of his or her friend circles, and look for chat apps such as WhatsApp or Kik.
  8. Maximize privacy on social profiles. Help kids maximize privacy settings on social profiles and delete any profile or post information that unintentionally gives away personal data. Consider removing the names of family members, pets, school, hometown, and birthdays. Hackers can piece together this information to crack passwords or create authentic-looking phishing scams.
  9. Consider a family VPN. Virtual Private Networks are becoming the most popular way to conduct business, shop, and safeguard a family’s online activity from outsiders. VPN encryption can protect a child against several virtual threats.
  10. Review gaming safety. If your kids spend a lot of time on games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, they can encounter strangers, bullying, and scams that target gamers. Teen gamers should use a firewall to help block would-be attackers from gaining access to their PC and home networks and as well as a comprehensive security solution to protect devices from malware and other threats.
  11. Monitor devices. Consider spot-checking all devices routinely. Review privacy settings on social networks (kids change them), look for new apps, review browsing history, chats, and texts. Need to go a step farther? Keep your child’s phone for a few hours to check notifications that pop up. You may find activity that wasn’t necessarily visible otherwise.

Taming all the moving parts of internet safety isn’t easy, and balancing your relationship with your child and parental monitoring can get turbulent at times. While kids can experience more drama and anxiety by going online, social networks remain critical channels for affirmation, self-expression, and connection. In the weeks to come, take time to listen, learn, and get to know your child’s digital passions and patterns. Identify safety gaps and reinforce those areas. Good luck, parents, you’ve got this!

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Little Ones Online More? Here Are 10 Basics To Keep Them Safe

protecting kids online

Online safety conversations look dramatically different depending on the age and stage of your child. For very young children, toddlers through elementary school, parents have a golden opportunity to lay the foundations that will shape a child’s digital perspectives and behaviors for a lifetime.

One way to keep younger children safe online is simply to begin. How early, you might ask? From the day they arrive. If you’ve ever seen a four-month-old reach for mommy’s smartphone only to cry when mommy takes it away, it’s clear the baby has observed the culture around him. He knows that the shiny toy that hums is one of mommy’s favorite things. It has the power to capture and hold her attention. It makes her laugh, cry, and influence her routine and emotions.

Protecting kids online

Modeling balanced screen habits is a powerful way to influence behavior as toddlers begin to discover television, apps, interactive toys, and online learning sites. At this stage, intentional steps such as limiting screen time, reviewing content, and talking with your little one in simple concepts about the images and stories encounter will help grow their digital IQs. Note: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping all screens turned off around babies and toddlers younger than 24 months.

Move With The Curve

As kids move into elementary school, technology is often part of the learning experience. Some children (depending on the household) may even own smartphones. Because the integration of technology begins to increase, this stage requires parents to move with the curve of a child’s online safety needs. Priorities: Securing devices kids take to school, setting filters on web browsers, limiting screen and gaming time, encouraging physical activity and hobbies, and having consistent, age-appropriate conversations about the online world is more important than ever.

10 Online Safety Basics for Younger Children

  1. Keep devices in a common area. By locating all computers, TVs, and devices in a common area, parents can easily monitor a child’s online activity. This simple step also helps kids get used to parental monitoring and responsible digital behavior.
  2. Follow family device rules. Establish family ground rules for technology use and repeat them to your younger children. Every child’s maturity and self-control level is different. If you think your child’s connection with his or her technology begins to tip toward the unhealthy, make adjustments as you go. If you set a 20-minute game time limit, be ready to enforce it consistently. In our experience, inconsistency in enforcing technology rules when kids are young is one of the biggest regrets among parents of teens.
  3. Introduce password security. As we accumulate IoT devices, it’s common for younger children to interact with home assistants, SmartTVs, digital toys, and online games. When password prompts come up on a login screen, explain to your child what you are doing (use your password) and why passwords are necessary. Get into the habit of using 2-factor authentication for passwords and locking your device home screens with a pin code.
  4. Filter content. Younger kids accept content at face value and don’t have the critical thinking skills process information or to be alone online. If you allow younger kids online, consider sitting with them, and explaining the content in front of them. To avoid the chance of your child encountering inappropriate content by mistake, consider adding parental control software to family devices.protecting kids online
  5. Start the privacy conversation. Kids of all ages understand the word “mine.” As your kids interact with the online in the early years, explain why it’s essential to keep their name, picture, family member names, school name, and address private.
  6. Introduce VPN use early. Browsing on a secure network (VPN, Virtual Private Network) from an early age reinforces the concept of privacy online. Explain to your child how the private encryption “tunnel” your content (searches, activity, messages) passes through and how that keeps other people from grabbing your private information. Even a text conversation with Grandma could accidentally give away information.
  7. Explain the concept of scams. When age-appropriate, explain how (and why) some people online try to trick you into clicking a box or a link to learn more about you. Discuss why you shouldn’t click on pop-up ads, hyperlinks, and messages that could contain malware or phishing links. To guard family devices against malicious links, consider free tools like Web Advisor.
  8. Discuss digital stranger danger. When you open a web browser, you open your home to content and people you don’t know. Children of any age can inadvertently run into digital danger zones. Teach young children not to talk to a stranger online or send (or share) photos with others. It’s also a good idea to cover the camera lens on your laptop or tablet, advise children to never stay on a website you would not approve of, and to never download or click a link without asking your permission.
  9. Introduce safe social networking. Online communities are here to stay, so consider starting social network safety talks early. Several kid-friendly browsers, apps, and social networks exist online for younger kids and are perfect for teaching them about privacy settings, how to collaborate and interact with others online.
  10. Start talking. Keep talking. Of all the principles we’ve featured, we’ve saved the best for last. Creating an open, trusting dialogue with your child is your #1 security tool in keeping your child safe online today and into the future.

While schools introduce kids to internet safety basics to protect kids online and do well to refresh concepts along the way, it’s the consistent, intentional work of parents that shape the values and skills a child needs to navigate the online world. By putting some of these foundational principles in place early and committing to consistent follow-through, it’s possible to maintain critical influence as your children move into different phases of their digital lives.

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Scams Facing Consumers in the New Digital WFH Landscape

With many people having their normal day to day life turned upside down, scammers are capitalizing on consumers’ newfound lifestyles to make a financial gain or wreak havoc on users’ devicesLet’s take a look at the most recent threats that have emerged as a result of the pandemic 

Fraudulent Relief Checks

On Wednesday March 25, the Senate passed a relief bill that contains a substantial increase in unemployment benefits for Americans who have lost their jobs or have been furloughed due to the economic fallout from the pandemicFinancial scammers are likely to use this as an opportunity to steal money offered to Americans who are facing the negative economic effects of the pandemic, as these crooks could make consumers believe they need to pay money as a condition of receiving government relief. The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning to consumers to be on the lookout for fraudulent activity as the government implements these financial relief packages.  

Map Used to Track Pandemic Used to Spread Malware

According to security researcher Brian Krebs, criminals have started disseminating real-time, accurate information about global infection rates to spread malware. In one scheme, an interactive dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University is being used in malicious websites (and possibly in spam emails) to spread password-stealing malware.  Additionally, Krebs flagged a digital pandemic infection kit, which allows other criminals to purchase a bundled version of the map with the scammer’s preferred attack method. 

Texts, WhatsApp, and TikTok Spread Falsehoods

Due to the nature of the rapidly evolving pandemic, criminals are taking advantage of the situation by spreading misinformation. As more communities are being ordered to shelter in placemisleading text messages announcing a national quarantine claiming to come from the White House buzzed onto cell phones around the U.S. According to the Washington Post, the fraudulent text messages encouraged users to, “Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two-week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.” These fake texts spread so widely that the White House’s National Security Council debunked the misleading claims in a Twitter post stating, “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” Communication apps like WhatsApp and social media platforms like TikTok have carried similar examples of this misinformation.  

Robocalls Offering Free Test Kits and Low-Cost Health Insurance

On top of fraudulent messages floating around via SMS, WhatsApp, and TikTok, scammers are also using robocalls to spread misinformation around the global pandemic, especially as more users are at home and available to answer phone calls as a result of self-isolation. According to CNNrobocalls from more than 60 different phone numbers are falsely offering low-priced health insurance and free coronavirus test kitsAnother type of robocall asks users to sign a petition to ban flights from China. Criminals are taking advantage of the fact that new information around the pandemic is constantly being released, presenting them with an opportunity to scam users by impersonating local and federal officials.  

Stay Safe Online With These Tips

During this time of uncertainty, it can be difficult to decipher what is fact from fiction. When it comes to the potential online threats around the recent pandemic, here’s what you can do to stay protected:  

Only trust official news sources

Be sure to only trust reputable news sites. This will help you filter out fake information that is just adding to the noise across the internet.  

Don’t share your personal or financial data

Although financial relief checks are not yet a reality, know that the federal government will not ask you to pay fees or charges upfront to receive these funds. Additionally, the government will not ask you for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number.  

Beware of messages from unknown users

If you receive a text, email, social media message, or phone call from an unknown user regarding the pandemic, it’s best to proceed with caution and avoid interacting with the message altogether.  

Go directly to the source

If you receive information regarding the pandemic from an unknown user, go directly to the source instead of clicking on links within messages or attachments. For example, users should only trust the map tracking the pandemic’s spread found on the Johns Hopkins websiteUsing a tool like McAfee WebAdvisor can help users stay safe from similar threats while searching the web.  

Register for the FCC’s “Do Not Call” list

This can help keep you protected from scammers looking to capitalize on current events by keeping your number off their lists. 

Stay updated 

To stay updated on all things McAfee and on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats, follow @McAfee_Home on Twitter, listen to our podcast Hackable?, and ‘Like’ us on Facebook. 

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Honey, We’re Home! Securing Your Devices and Your Family Bond  

family device security

More and more parents and their kids are experiencing what it’s like to work and learn together from home these days. With this increase in device use, it’s more important than ever to verify that all the technology humming under your roof is as secure as possible.

Securing family technology

Run an overall security check. Taking an inventory of all your family’s connected devices and their security should be as important as keeping your doors locked and keeping batteries in your smoke alarms — your family’s safety depends on it. Consider installing a comprehensive security solution across all devices. This will help protect your family against malware, viruses, phishing attacks, and alert you to malicious websites. As part of your security check, be sure to update the software on all devices, including IoT products, TVs, and toys.

Review parental controls. There’s no way around it. Device use will likely skyrocket under your roof for a while. Kids will be online for school, as well as for fun. You may have turned on some filtering on some devices and some social networks, but it may be time to bring on an extra set of eyes and ears with comprehensive filtering software. With increased tech use, parental controls will help monitor your child’s digital activity. Too, with a new work-at-home lifestyle, the software (with time limits) can also make scheduling family breaks together much more manageable.

Secure your home router. Your router is akin to your family’s front door, and now is a great time to change the locks (your passwords) on this critical entryway into your home. If you are reluctant to change your passwords or think its a hassle, consider the simplicity of a password manager. Using a password manager will make changing passwords easy to change and easy to keep track of, which can boost overall security. If you are working from home, make sure your home network aligns with your company’s security expectations. For specifics on business security, read this post on working securely from home.

Introduce a VPN (Virtual Private Network). If you’ve toyed with the idea of a VPN but just haven’t made a move, now is a great time. While you may not venture into public spaces much at the present moment, a VPN will add a significant layer of security on your devices if you take a break and go to a public park or if your kids need to go online while at a friend’s. Explain VPN benefits to your kids and how to log on. It’s easy, it’s smart, and it’s secure.

Securing your family bond

Create a schedule that works for everyone. Your home network is likely working on overdrive by now. With the extra online schooling, devices, and video calls taking place, your bandwidth may start to lag. This is because residential internet doesn’t rival business internet. Discuss a schedule for online time and the challenge of accomplishing mutual deadlines each day. Respect and honor one another’s responsibilities. If you’ve never had the chance to talk about the specifics of your job and daily tasks, maybe this is your chance.

Acknowledge the stress of uncertainty. There are feelings — lots of feelings — that accompany change, and everyone’s response to it will vary. Shifting into an abrupt, new routine may feel confusing and confining to a child of any age and cause anxiety and emotions to run high. Talk through these feelings together as often as needed. Acknowledge your child’s losses — connection with teachers, sports, friends, events — and offer empathy and support.

Explore new possibilities — together. No doubt, considerable shifts in a family’s routine can be stressful. Even so, there’s opportunity woven throughout every challenge. With some extra time management, it’s possible to discover some hidden opportunities and adventures along the way. Hiking, canoeing, and exploring the outdoors could become a new love for your family. Watching movie classics together, learning a new skill online, building something, or tackling overdue projects together may open up a new, shared passion. Endless possibilities await.

Balance work, health, and family. Nothing will undermine your efforts to work from home more than a skewed work-life balance or school-life (yes, kids can go overboard too)! A recent study shows that remote workers are more productive than office workers and spend more time at their desks. For balance, consider setting firm office/school hours (for both you and the kids), taking exercise breaks throughout the day, and getting an accountability partner to help you stay on track. And, don’t forget — lots of eyes are watching you always — so modeling work-life-and-technology balance for your kids is teaching them with the same value.

It’s a new frontier parent, but with the right tools and the proper support around you, anything is possible. Stay healthy, stay happy, and stay secure in this new remote, family adventure.

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WhatsApp Security Hacks: Are Your ‘Private’ Messages Really Ever Private?

WhatsApp hacks

WhatsApp one of the largest instant messengers and considered by many a social network of its own. So, in continuing our app safety discussion, we’re diving into some of the top security hacks and questions many WhatsApp app users and parents may have.

But first, what’s a security hack? In short, it’s an attempt to exploit the weaknesses in an app, network, or digital service to gain unauthorized access, usually for some illicit purpose. Here are just some of the concerns WhatsApp users may have and some suggestions on boosting security.

WhatsApp Hack FAQ

Are WhatsApp conversations private?

Yes — but there are exceptions. More than any other app, WhatsApp offers greater privacy thanks to end-to-end encryption that scrambles messages to ensure only you and the person you’re communicating with can read your messages or listen to your calls. Here’s the catch: WhatsApp messages (which include videos and photos) are vulnerable before they are encrypted and after they are decrypted if a hacker has managed to drop spyware on the phone. Spyware attacks on WhatsApp have already occurred. Safe Family Tip: No conversation shared between devices is ever 100% private. To increase your WhatsApp security, keep sensitive conversations and content offline, and keep your app updated. 

Can anyone read my deleted WhatsApp messages?

A WhatsApp user can access his or her own deleted messages via the chat backup function that automatically backs up all of your messages at 2 a.m. every day. WhatsApp users can delete a message by using the Delete for Everyone button within an hour after sending though it’s not foolproof. Here’s the catch: Anyone who receives the message before it’s deleted can take a screenshot of it. So, there’s no way to ensure regrettable content isn’t captured, archived, or shared. There are also third-party apps that will recall deleted messages shared by others. Another possibility is that a hacker can access old chats stored in an app user’s cloud. Safe Family Tip: Think carefully about sharing messages or content you may regret later.

Can WhatsApp messages be deleted permanently?

Even if a WhatsApp user decides to delete a message, it’s no guarantee of privacy since conversations are two-way, and the person on the receiving end may screenshot or save a copy of a chat, video, or photo. On the security side, you may delete a message and see it disappear, but WhatsApp still retains a “forensic trace of the chat” that can be used by hackers for mining data, according to reports. Safe Family Tip: For extra security, turn off backups in WhatsApp’s Settings.

WhatsApp hacksHow can I secure my WhatsApp?

It’s crucial when using WhatsApp (or any other app) to be aware of common scams, including malware, catfishing, job and money scams, spyware, and file jacking. To amplify security, turn on Security Notifications in Settings, which will send an alert if, for some reason, your security code changes. Other ways to boost security: Use two-step verification, never share your 6-digit SMS verification code, disable cloud back up, and set your profile to private. Safe Family Tip: Install comprehensive family security software and secure physical access to your phone or laptop with a facial, fingerprint, or a passcode ID. Don’t open (block, report) messages from strangers or spammers. Never share personal information with people you don’t know. 

How do I delete my WhatsApp account from another phone?

To delete a WhatsApp account go to > Settings > Account > Delete My Account. Deleting your account erases message history, removes you from groups, and deletes your backup data. According to WhatsApp, for users moving from one type of phone to another, such as from an iPhone to an Android, and keeping the same phone number, your account information stays intact, but you won’t be able to migrate messages across platforms. If you’re not keeping your number, you should delete WhatsApp from your old phone, download WhatsApp to your new phone, and verify your new phone number. Upgrading the same phone type will likely include options to migrate messages. Safe Family Tip: Before you give away or exchange an old phone, wipe it clean of all your data.

How do you know your WhatsApp is scanned?

WhatsApp users can easily sync devices by downloading the WhatsApp web app and activating it (Settings > WhatsApp Web/Desktop). Devices sync by scanning a QR code that appears on your laptop screen. You know your device is scanned when you see the green chat screen appear on your desktop. Safe Family Tip: It’s possible for a person with physical access to your desktop to scan your QR code and to gain account access. If you think someone has access to your account log out of all your active web sessions in WhatsApp on your mobile phone.

How long are WhatsApp messages stored?

According to WhatsApp, once a user’s messages are delivered, they are deleted from WhatsApp servers. This includes chats, photos, videos, voice messages, and files. Messages can still be stored on each individual’s device. Safe Family Tip: The moment you send any content online, it’s out of your control. The person or group on the receiving end can still store it on their device or to their cloud service. Never send risky content. 

How secure is WhatsApp?

There’s no doubt, end-to-end encryption makes it much more difficult for hackers to read WhatsApp messages. While WhatsApp is more secure than other messaging apps — but not 100% secure.

Is it true that WhatsApp has been hacked?

Yes. Several times and in various ways. No app, service, or network has proven to be unhackable. Safe Family Tip: Assume that any digital platform is vulnerable. Maximize privacy settings, never share risky content, financial information, or personal data.

Is WhatsApp safe to send pictures?

Encryption ensures that a transmission is secure, but that doesn’t mean WhatsApp content is safe or that human behavior is predictable. People (even trusted friends) can share private content. People can also illegally attempt to gain access to any content you’ve shared. This makes WhatsApp (along with other digital sharing channels) unsafe for exchanging sensitive information or photos. Safe Family Tip: Nothing on the internet is private. Never send or receive pictures that may jeopardize your privacy, reputation, or digital footprint.

WhatsApp isn’t the only popular app with security loopholes hackers exploit. Every app or network connected to the internet is at risk for some type of cyberattack. We hope this post sparks family discussions that help your kids use this and other apps wisely and helps keep your family’s privacy and safety online top of mind.

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TikTok Challenge, Hoop App, and Other Headlines You May Have Missed

TikTok Challenge

Digital news that affects families seems to be dominating the headlines these days. To keep parents in the know, here are some of the stories you may want to give extra family discussion time to this week.

Skull Breaker Challenge Proving Unfunny 

Apps — video apps especially — can help kids tap into their creativity and give kids a critical way to connect. Where the fun can take a dangerous turn is in the way kids choose to use their technology. In this case, the poor choice is in the Skull Breaker Challenge (also called the Trip Jump Challenge), a prank resulting in some kids being hospitalized.

The prank, designed to get laughs and accumulate TikTok views, includes two kids tricking a third friend into making a dance video together. Three kids line up side by side for a planned group dance that will be videotaped and posted. As everyone jumps as planned, the two kids on either side swipe the legs out from under the middle person causing him or her to fall backward. According to reports, the prank is surfacing mainly on TikTok but also Youtube.

Safe Family Tip: Consider talking to your child about the dangers of online challenges and the risks already reported in the news. 1) Discuss the physical dangers doctors are warning the public about, including neck strain, concussion, skull fracture, long-term complications, or even death. 2) Using current news stories, explain personal responsibility and what can happen legally if your child hurts another person during a prank.

Snapchat’s Hoop App Being Called ‘Tinder for Teens’

Snapchat users (over 2.5 million in fact) are flocking to a new Tinder-like app called Hoop that interfaces with Snapchat. The developer app allows other Hoop users to swipe through other Hoop users and request to connect via their Snapchat profile name.

While the app asks a user’s age, much like other social sites, there’s no way to prove a user’s age. And, users can change their age at any time after creating an account. This type of app format can be tempting for kids who are naturally curious and seeking to meet new friends outside of their familiar social circle. There’s a potential for common issues such as catfishing, predator behavior, and inappropriate content. Kids as young as 12 can form connections with strangers. While their profile may be harmless, they can’t control the type of content that pops up on their screen from other users. Another red flag: Hoop users are rewarded with “diamonds” for sharing their Snapchat name and getting others to join Hoop, so the incentive to daily share and connect with a wide circle outside of one’s known friend group may prove tough for some kids to resist.TikTok Challenge

Safe Family Tip: While it’s challenging to stay on top of the constant array of new apps, it’s not impossible. One way to understand where your child spends his or her time online is with comprehensive monitoring software. Another way of monitoring activity is to physically check your child’s phone once a week for new app icons (see right) and take the time to talk about his or her favorite apps. Consider explaining the dangers of connecting with strangers and the real possibility that a new “cute 16-year-old” may be a predator attempting to win your child’s trust (it happens every day). Review and agree on which apps are considered safe and the expectations you have for your family’s online choices.

Another app to keep on your radar is Wink. Nearly identical to Hoop, Wink interfaces with Snapchat and is being promoted as a “new friend finder.” It has a similar “swipe” feature that connects kids to random Wink users and is currently ranked #15 in the app store.

Should phones be banned from schools?

A conversation gaining a quiet but consistent buzz is the merit of prohibiting phones from schools — a law France has enforced for two years that has parents, educators, and legislators talking. Several recent studies reveal that phone bans can lead to higher test scores, higher test grades and attention spans, and increased cognitive capacity. Some schools in the U.S. have independently taken steps to curb and ban phones in hopes of focusing on distracted students.

Proponents of phones in school say a ban would be impossible to enforce and that technology is needed to help parents stay in touch with kids during the school day, especially for emergencies. Others say phones at school are a critical part of learning and raising self-sufficient, tech-savvy students prepared for a digital workforce.

Safe Family Tip: Begin the discussion with your child about the pros and cons of devices at school. Listen closely to his or her perspective. Discuss potential device-related issues that can be amplified during the school day such as cyberbullying, group chat conflicts, sexting, gaming during class, and using devices to cheat. Review expectations such as using phones only before and after school to connect with parents.

Stay tuned in the weeks to come as we take a closer look at other apps such as TikTok and WhatsApp Messenger that — when used unwisely — can lead to some surprising risks for kids. Until then, keep the digital safety conversation humming in your home. You’ve got this, parents!

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“Distinguished Impersonator” Information Operation That Previously Impersonated U.S. Politicians and Journalists on Social Media Leverages Fabricated U.S. Liberal Personas to Promote Iranian Interests

In May 2019, FireEye Threat Intelligence published a blog post exposing a network of English-language social media accounts that engaged in inauthentic behavior and misrepresentation that we assessed with low confidence was organized in support of Iranian political interests. Personas in that network impersonated candidates for U.S. House of Representatives seats in 2018 and leveraged fabricated journalist personas to solicit various individuals, including real journalists and politicians, for interviews intended to bolster desired political narratives. Since the release of that blog post, we have continued to track activity that we believe to be part of that broader operation, reporting our findings to our intelligence customers using the moniker “Distinguished Impersonator.”

Today, Facebook took action against a set of eleven accounts on the Facebook and Instagram platforms that they shared with us and, upon our independent review, we assessed were related to the broader Distinguished Impersonator activity set we’ve been tracking. We separately identified a larger set of just under 40 related accounts active on Twitter against which Twitter has also taken recent enforcement action. In this blog post, we provide insights into the recent activity and behavior of some of the personas in the Distinguished Impersonator network, in order to exemplify the tactics information operations actors are employing in their attempts to surreptitiously amplify narratives and shape political attitudes.          

Activity Overview

Personas in the Distinguished Impersonator network have continued to engage in activity similar to that we previously reported on publicly in May 2019, including social media messaging directed at politicians and media outlets; soliciting prominent individuals including academics, journalists, and activists for “media” interviews; and posting what appear to be videoclips of interviews of unknown provenance conducted with such individuals to social media. The network has also leveraged authentic media content to promote desired political narratives, including the dissemination of news articles and videoclips from Western mainstream media outlets that happen to align with Iranian interests, and has amplified the commentary of real individuals on social media.

Outside of impersonating prominent individuals such as journalists, other personas in the network have primarily posed as U.S. liberals, amplifying authentic content from other social media users broadly in line with that proclaimed political leaning, as well as material more directly in line with Iranian political interests, such as videoclips of a friendly meeting between U.S. President Trump and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman accompanied by pro-U.S. Democrat commentary, videoclips of U.S. Democratic presidential candidates discussing Saudi Arabia's role in the conflict in Yemen, and other anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and anti-Trump messaging. Some of this messaging has been directed at the social media accounts of U.S. politicians and media outlets (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Twitter accounts in the Distinguished Impersonator network posting anti-Israeli, anti-Saudi, and anti-Trump content

We observed direct overlap between six of the personas operating on Facebook platforms and those operating on Twitter. In one example of such overlap, the “Ryan Jensen” persona posted to both Twitter and Instagram a videoclip showing antiwar protests in the U.S. following the killing of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) by a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad in January 2020 (Figure 2). Notably, though the strike motivated some limited activity by personas in the network, the Distinguished Impersonator operation has been active since long before that incident.


Figure 2: Posts by the “Ryan Jensen” persona on Twitter and Instagram disseminating a videoclip of antiwar protests in the U.S. following the killing of Qasem Soleimani

Accounts Engaged in Concerted Replies to Influential Individuals on Twitter, Posed as Journalists and Solicited Prominent Individuals for “Media” Interviews

Personas on Twitter that we assess to be a part of the Distinguished Impersonator operation engaged in concerted replies to tweets by influential individuals and organizations, including members of the U.S. Congress and other prominent political figures, journalists, and media outlets. The personas responded to tweets with specific narratives aligned with Iranian interests, often using identical hashtags. The personas sometimes also responded with content unrelated to the tweet they were replying to, again with messaging aligned with Iranian interests. For example, a tweet regarding a NASA mission received replies from personas in the network pertaining to Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker in July 2019. Other topics the personas addressed included U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran and U.S. President Trump’s impeachment (Figure 3). While it is possible that the personas may have conducted such activity in the hope of eliciting responses from the specific individuals and organizations they were replying to, the multiple instances of personas responding to seemingly random tweets with unrelated political content could also indicate an intent to reach the broader Twitter audiences following those prominent accounts.


Figure 3: Twitter accounts addressing U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran (left) and the Trump impeachment (right)

Instagram accounts that we assess to be part of the Distinguished Impersonator operation subsequently highlighted this Twitter activity by posting screen recordings of an unknown individual(s) scrolling through the responses by the personas and authentic Twitter users to prominent figures’ tweets. The Instagram account @ryanjensen7722, for example, posted a video scrolling through replies to a tweet by U.S. Senator Cory Gardner commenting on “censorship and oppression.” The video included a reply posted by @EmilyAn1996, a Twitter account we have assessed to be part of the operation, discussing potential evidence surrounding President Trump’s impeachment trial.


Figure 4: Screenshot of video posted by @ryanjensen7722 on Instagram scrolling through Twitter replies to a tweet by U.S. Senator Cory Gardner

We also observed at least two personas posing as journalists working at legitimate U.S. media outlets openly solicit prominent individuals via Twitter, including Western academics, activists, journalists, and political advisors, for interviews (Figure 5). These individuals included academic figures from organizations such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, as well as well-known U.S. conservatives opposed to U.S. President Trump and a British MP. The personas solicited the individuals’ opinions regarding topics relevant to Iran’s political interests, such as Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, the Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, Trump’s “deal of the century,” referring to a peace proposal regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict authored by the Trump administration, and a tweet by President Trump regarding former UK Prime Minister Theresa May.


Figure 5: The “James Walker” persona openly soliciting interviews from academics and journalists on Twitter

Twitter Personas Posted Opinion Polls To Solicit Views on Topics Relevant to Iranian Political Interests

Some of the personas on Twitter also posted opinion polls to solicit other users’ views on political topics, possibly for the purpose of helping to build a larger follower base through engagement. One account, @CavenessJim, posed the question: “Do you believe in Trump’s foreign policies especially what he wants to do for Israel which is called ‘the deal of the century’?” (The poll provided two options: “Yes, I do.” and “No, he cares about himself.” Of the 2,241 votes received, 99% of participants voted for the latter option, though we note that we have no visibility into the authenticity of those “voters”.) Another account, @AshleyJones524, responded to a tweet by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham by posting a poll asking if the senator was “Trump’s lapdog,” tagging seven prominent U.S. politicians and one comedian in the post; all 24 respondents to the poll voted in the affirmative. As with the Instagram accounts’ showcasing of replies to the tweets of prominent individuals, Instagram accounts in the network also highlighted polls posted by the personas on Twitter (Figure 6).


Figure 6: Twitter account @CavenessJim posts Twitter poll (left); Instagram account @ryanjensen7722 posts video highlighting @CavenessJim's Twitter poll (right)

Videoclips of Interviews with U.S., U.K., and Israeli Individuals Posted on Iran-Based Media Outlet Tehran Times

Similar to the personas we reported on in May 2019, some of the more recently active personas posted videoclips on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter of interviews with U.S., UK, and Israeli individuals including professors, politicians, and activists expressing views on topics aligned with Iranian political interests (Figure 7). We have thus far been unable to determine the provenance of these interviews, and note that, unlike some of the previous cases we reported on in 2019, the personas in this more recent iteration of activity did not themselves proclaim to have conducted the interviews they promoted on social media. The videoclips highlighted the interviewees’ views on issues such as U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and U.S. relations with its political allies. Notably, we observed that at least some of the videoclips that were posted by the personas to social media have also appeared on the website of the Iranian English-language media outlet Tehran Times, both prior to and following the personas' social media posts. In other instances, Tehran Times published videoclips that appeared to be different segments of the same interviews that were posted by Distinguished Impersonator personas. Tehran Times is owned by the Islamic Propagation Organization, an entity that falls under the supervision of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.


Figure 7: Facebook and Instagram accounts in the network posting videoclips of interviews with an activist and a professor

Conclusion

The activity we’ve detailed here does not, in our assessment, constitute a new activity set, but rather a continuation of an ongoing operation we believe is being conducted in support of Iranian political interests that we’ve been tracking since last year. It illustrates that the actors behind this operation continue to explore elaborate methods for leveraging the authentic political commentary of real individuals to furtively promote Iranian political interests online. The continued impersonation of journalists and the amplification of politically-themed interviews of prominent individuals also provide additional examples of what we have long referred to internally as the “media-IO nexus”, whereby actors engaging in online information operations actively leverage the credibility of the legitimate media environment to mask their activities, whether that be through the use of inauthentic news sites masquerading as legitimate media entities, deceiving legitimate media entities in order to promote desired political narratives, defacing media outlets’ websites to disseminate disinformation, spoofing legitimate media websites, or, as in this case, attempting to solicit commentary likely perceived as expedient to the actors’ political goals by adopting fake media personas.

Spotting Fake News: Teaching Kids to be Responsible Online Publishers

fake news

Editor’s note: This is part II in a series on Fake News. Read part I, here.

Kids today are not equipped to deal with the barrage of digital information coming at them every day. Add to that, the bulk of information that may be fake, misleading, or even malicious. So how do we help kids become more responsible for the content they share online?

We do it one conversation at a time.

When it comes to the mounting influence of fake news, it’s easy to point the finger at the media, special interest groups, politicians, and anyone else with an agenda and internet access. While many of these groups may add to the problem, each one of us plays a role in stopping it.

What’s our role?

We, the connected consumer, now play such a significant role in how content is created and disseminated, that a large part of the solution comes down to individual responsibility — yours and mine.

The shift begins with holding ourselves accountable for every piece of content we read, create, or share online. That shift gains momentum when we equip our kids to do the same.

Teach personal responsibility. Start the conversation around personal responsibility early with your kids and keep it going. Explain that every time we share fake news, a rumor, or poorly sourced material, we become one cog in the wheel of spreading untruths and even malicious fabrications. We become part of the problem. Challenge your child to become a trustworthy, discerning source of information as opposed to being viewed by others as an impulsive, unreliable source.

Discuss the big picture. Fake news or misleading content isn’t just annoying; it’s harmful in a lot of other ways. Misinformation undermines trust, causes division, can spark social unrest, and harm unity. More than that, fake news edges out helpful, factual, content designed to educate and inform.

Be aware of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is gravitating toward ideas, people, and content that echoes our spiritual, social, political, or moral points of view. Confirmation bias tempts us to disregard information that opposes our ideology. While confirmation bias is part of our human nature, left unchecked, it can be an obstacle to learning factual information.

Chill, don’t spill. Fake news is designed to advance a personal agenda. This is especially true during times of social tension when tempers are running high. Don’t take the emotional bait. Exercise discernment. Before sharing, read legitimate news sources that offer balanced coverage, so the story you share or opinion you express is based on accurate information.

Be a free thinker. Our kids have grown up in a world where ‘like’ and ‘share’ counts somehow equate to credibility. Encourage kids to break away from the crowd and have the courage to be free, independent thinkers.

Challenge content by asking:

  • Do I understand all the points of view of this story?
  • What do I really think about this topic or idea?
  • Am I overly emotional and eager to share this?
  • Am I being manipulated by this content?
  • What if I’m wrong?

Question every source. Studies show that people assume that the higher something ranks in search results, the more factual or trustworthy the information is. Wrong. Algorithms retrieve top content based on keywords, not accuracy. So, dig deeper and verify sources.

5 ways to spot fake news

1. Look closely at the source. Fake news creators are good at what they do. While some content has detectable errors, others are sophisticated and strangely persuasive. So, take a closer look. Test credibility by asking:

  • Where is the information coming from? 
  • Is this piece satire?
  • Is the author of the article, bio, and website legitimate? 
  • Are studies, infographics, and quotes appropriately attributed?
  • Is the URL legitimate (cnn.comvs. cnn.com.co)?
  • Are there red flags such as unknown author, all capital letters, misspellings, or grammar errors?

2. Be discerning with viral content. Often a story will go viral because it’s so unbelievable. So pause before you share. Google the story’s headline to see if the story appears in other reliable publications.

3. Pay attention to publish dates, context. Some viral news items may not be entirely false, just intentionally shared out of context. Fake news creators often pull headlines or stories from the past and present them as current news to fit the desired narrative.

4. Beware of click-bait headlines. A lot of fake news is carefully designed with user behavior in mind. A juicy headline leads to a false news story packed with even more fake links that take you to a product page or, worse, download malware onto your computer, putting your data and privacy at risk. These kinds of fake news scams capitalize on emotional stories such as the recent tragic death of basketball great Kobe Bryant.

5. Verify information. It takes extra effort, but plenty of sites exist that can help you verify a piece of information. Before sharing that a piece of content, check it out on sites like:

  • Snopes.com
  • Factcheck.com
  • Politifact.org
  • Opensecrets.org
  • Truthorfiction.com
  • Hoaxslayer.com

While fake news isn’t a new phenomenon, thanks to technology’s amplification power, it’s reached new levels of influence and deception. This social shift makes it imperative to get in front of this family conversation as soon as possible especially since we’re headed into an election year.

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Where’s the Truth Online? How to Build Your Family’s Digital Discernment

fake news

Note: This is Part I of a series on equipping your family fight back against fake news online. 

Fake news is chipping away at our trust in the government, the media, and in one another. And, because our kids spend much so much time in the online space, it’s more important than ever to help them understand how to separate truth from fiction.

How dangerous is the spread of misinformation? According to one study, 75% of people who see fake news believe it’s real. This inability to discern is at the core of how a false piece of information — be it a story, a photo, a social post, or an email — spreads like wildfire online.

Fake news erodes trust

A 2019 Pew Institute study reveled Americans rank fake news as a bigger problem in the U.S. over terrorism, illegal immigration, racism, and sexism and believe the spread of fake news is causing ‘significant harm’ to the nation and needs to be stopped.’

At the root of the issue is that too much news is coming at us from too many sources. True or not, millions of people are sharing that information, and they are often driven more by emotion and than fact.

According to Author and Digital Literacy Expert Diana Graber, one of a parent’s most important roles today is teaching kids to evaluate and be discerning with the content they encounter online.

“Make sure your kids know that they cannot believe everything they see or read online. Give them strategies to assess online information. Be sure your child’s school is teaching digital literacy,” says Graber.

Kids encounter and share fake news on social networks, chat apps, and videos. Says Graber, the role of video will rise as a fake news channel as AI technology advances.

“I think video manipulation, such as deepfake videos, is a very important area to keep an eye on for in the future. So much of the media that kids consume is visual, it will be important for them to learn visual literacy skills too,” says Graber.

The hidden costs of fake news

A December Facebook post warning people that men driving white vans were part of an organized human trafficking ring, quickly went viral on several social networks.

Eventually, law enforcement exposed the post as fake; people shrugged it off and moved on. But in its wake, much was lost that didn’t go viral. The fake post was shared countless times. With each share, someone compromised a small piece of trust.

The false post caused digital panic and cast uncertainty on our sense of security and community. The post cost us money. The false information took up the resources of several law enforcement agencies that chose to investigate. It cost us trust. Public warnings even made it to the evening news in some cities.

The spread of fake news impacts on our ability to make wise informed decisions. It chips away at our expectation of truth in the people and resources around us.

Fake news that goes viral is powerful. It can impact our opinions about important health issues. It can damage companies and the stock market, and destroy personal reputations.

In the same Pew study, we learned about another loss — connection. Nearly 54 percent of respondents said they avoid talking with another person because that person may bring made-up news into the conversation.

The biggest loss? When it’s hard to see the truth, we are all less well informed, which creates obstacles to personal and cultural progress.

Family talking points

Here are three digital literacy terms defined to help you launch the fake news discussion.

  1. Fake news: We like the definition offered by PolitiFact: “Fake news is made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.”Discuss: Sharing fake news can hurt the people in the story as well as the credibility of the person sharing it. No one wants to be known for sharing sketchy content, rumors, or half-truths.Do: Sit down with your kids. Scroll through their favorite social networks and read some posts or stories. Ask: What news stories spark your interest, and why? Who posted this information? Are the links in the article credible? Should I share this piece of content? Why or why not?
  2. Objectivity: Content or statements based on facts that are not influenced by personal beliefs or feelings.Discuss: News stories should be objective (opinion-free), while opinion pieces can be subjective. When information (or a person) is subjective, you can identify personal perspectives, feelings, and opinions. When information (or a person) is objective, it’s void of opinion and based on facts.Do: Teaching kids to recognize objective vs. subjective content can be fun. Pick up a local newspaper (or access online). Read the stories on the front page (they should contain only facts). Flip to the Op-Ed page and discuss the shift in tone and content.
  3. Discernment: A person’s ability to evaluate people, content, situations, and things well. The ability to discern is at the core of decision-making.Discuss: To separate truth from fiction online, we need to be critical thinkers who can discern truth. Critical thinking skills develop over time and differ depending on the age group.Do: Watch this video from Cyberwise on Fake News. Sit down together and Google a current news story. Compare how different news sites cover the same news story. Ask: How are the headlines different? Is there a tone or bias? Which story do you believe to be credible, and why? Which one would you feel confident sharing with others? 

The increase in fake news online has impacted us all. However, with the right tools, we can fight back and begin to restore trust. Next week, in Part II of this series, we’ll discuss our personal responsibility in the fake news cycle and specific ways to identify fake news.

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Is It Time to Overhaul Your Relationship with Technology?

digital minimalism

Editor’s Note: This is part I of a series on Digital Minimalism in 2020.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he called it the “best iPod ever,” and said it would be a “very cool way” to make calls and listen to music. Little did he know that it would be the catalyst to a future technology tsunami of social networks, apps, and gaming platforms that would come to own our collective attention span.

But here we are. We daily enter an algorithm ecosystem that has little to do with our initial desire to connect with friends and have a little fun. We’ve gone from fumbling to find our flip phones to checking our phones 96 times a day —that’s once every 10 minutes, according to recent research

We’re getting it

However, with more time and knowledge behind us, parents and consumers are starting to get it.

We now know that companies deliberately engineer our favorite digital destinations to get us hooked. With every “like,” emoji, comment, and share, companies have figured out how to tap into our core human motivators of sensation, anticipation, which keeps our dopamine levels amped the same way tobacco, gambling, or overeating might do. 

This evolution of marketing and economics has hit us all hard and fast. But as Maya Angelou famously said, when we know better, we can do better. Stepping into 2020 may be the best time to rethink — and totally reconstruct — our relationship with technology.

digital minimalism

Digital Detox vs. Digital Minimalism

We’ve talked a lot about digital detox strategies, which, no doubt, have helped us reduce screen time and unplug more. However, there’s a new approach called digital minimalism that may offer a more long-term, sustainable solution to our tech-life balance.

The difference in approaches is this: A detox implies you will stop for a brief period and then resume activities. Digital minimalism is stopping old habits permanently and reconstructing a new way forward.

Digital minimalism encourages us to take a long, hard, honest look at our relationship with technology, be open to overhauling our ideology, and adopt a “less is more” approach.

Author Cal Newport examines the concept in his book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and is based on three principles: a) clutter is costly b) optimization is important c) intentionality is satisfying. 

According to Newport, digital minimalism allows us to rebuild our relationship with technology so that it serves us — not the other way around. Here’s the nugget: When you can clearly define and understand your values, you can make better, more confident decisions about what technology you use and when.

Three core principles

• Scrutinize value. Digital clutter is costly. Therefore, it’s critical to examine every piece of technology you allow into your life and weigh it against what it costs you in time, stress, and energy.

Ask yourself: 

What am I genuinely gaining from the time I am spending on this site?
What is being here costing me in terms of money and attention?
What emotions rise (positive, negative) when I’m using this app/site?
Can I perform the same task differently?

• Optimize resources. You don’t have to throw out all your technology to be a digital minimalist. Instead, optimization is determining what digital sources bring you the most value. For example, you may habitually scroll six news sources each day when you only gain value from two. You may have six active social networks you frequent out of obligation or habit when only one actually offers you value and genuine connection.

Ask yourself:

What app/site is the most accurate and valuable to me?
What app/site feed my emotions, goals, and relationships in a positive, healthy way?
What app/site helps me personally to work more efficiently?

• Align tech with values. The third principle of intentionality is inspired by the Amish way of life and encourages holding every technology decision up against your fundamental values. For instance, if spending time on a specific app doesn’t support your priorities of family and personal health, then that fun, albeit misaligned app does not make the cut. 

Ask yourself:

Does this activity benefit and support my values and what I’m trying to do in my life?
Am I better off without this online activity?

Getting started

  • 30-days of less. For 30 days, cut out all non-essential technology from your life. Use only what is essential to your income and health. 
  • Reflect on values. Reflect on the things that are truly important to you and your family. Think about what activities bring you joy and which specific people interest you. If you decide that creating art or volunteering are your central values, ask yourself, “Does this technology support my value of creating art and volunteering?”
  • Increase solitude. Researchers have found a connection between lack of solitude and the increase in depression and anxiety among digital natives (iGen) they call isolation depravation. Solitude allows us to process, reflect, and problem solve. Little by little, begin to increase your time for personal reflection. 

While it’s easy to demonize the growing presence and power of technology (smartphones and social media specifically) in family life, it’s also added amazing value and isn’t going anywhere soon. So we do what we can do, which is to stop and examine the way we use technology daily and the amount of control we give it over our time, hearts, and minds. 

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Lessons Learned: A Decade of Digital Parenting

digital parenting

Give yourself a high-five, parents. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or your favorite celebratory drink and sip it slow — real slow. Savor the wins. Let go of the misses. Appreciate the lessons learned. You’ve come a long way in the last decade of raising digital kids, and not all of it has been easy.

As we head into 2020, we’re tossing parenting resolutions (hey, it’s a victory to make it through a week let alone a year!). Instead, we’re looking back over the digital terrain we’ve traveled together and lessons learned. Need a refresher? Here’s a glimpse of how technology has impacted the family over the past decade.

In the last decade

• Smartphone, social, gaming growth. Social media and gaming platforms have exploded to usage and influence levels no one could have imagined. Smartphone ownership has increased and as of 2019: 81% of adults own a smartphone and 72% use social media, 53% of kids own a smartphone by the age of 11, and 84 % of teenagers have phones.

• Video platform growth. Video platforms like YouTube have become the go-to for teens and tweens who spend nearly three hours a day watching videos online.

• Streaming news. Smartphones have made it possible for all of us to carry (and stream) the world in our pockets. In 2018, for the first time, social media sites surpassed print newspapers as a news source for Americans.

• Dating apps dominate. We’re hooking up, dating, and marrying using apps. A Stanford study found that “heterosexual couples are more likely to meet a romantic partner online than through personal contacts and connections.”

• The rise of the Influencer. Internet influencers and celebrities have reached epic levels of fame, wealth, and reach, creating an entire industry of vloggers, gamers, micro and niche-influencers, and others who have become “instafamous.”

• Lexicon changes. Every day, technology is adding terms to our lexicon that didn’t exist a decade ago such as selfie, OMG, streaming, bae, fake news, the cloud, wearables, finsta, influencers, emojis, tracking apps, catfish, digital shaming, screen time, cryptojacking, FOMO, and hashtag, along with hundreds of others.

What we’ve learned (often the hard way)

Most people, if polled, would say technology has improved daily life in incalculable ways. But ask a parent of a child between five and 18 the same question, and the response may not be as enthusiastic. Here are some lessons we’ve learned the hard way.

Connection brings risk. We’ve learned that with unprecedented connection comes equally unprecedented risk. Everyday devices plug our kids directly into the potential for cyberbullying, sexting, inappropriate content, and mental health issues.  Over the past decade, parents, schools, and leaders have worked to address these risks head-on but we have a long way to go in changing the online space into an emotionally safe and healthy place.

Tech addiction isn’t a myth.  To curb the negative impact of increased tech use, we’ve learned ways to balance and limit screen time, unplug, and digitally detox. Most importantly, it’s been confirmed that technology addiction is a medical condition that’s impacting people and families in very painful ways.

The internet remembers. We’ve witnessed the very public consequences of bad digital choices. Kids and adults have wrecked scholarships, reputations, and careers due to careless words or content shared online. Because of these cases, we’re learning — though never fast enough — to think twice about the behaviors and words we share.

We’re equipping vs. protecting. We’ve gone from monitoring our kids aggressively and freaking out over headlines to realizing that we can’t put the internet in a bottle and follow our kids 24/7. We’ve learned that relevant, consistent conversation, adding an extra layer of protection with security software, and taking the time to understand (not just monitor) the ways our kids use new apps, is the best way to equip them for digital life.

The parent-child relationship is #1. When it comes to raising savvy digital kids and keeping them safe, there’s not a monitoring plan in existence that rivals a strong parent-child relationship. If you’ve earned your child’s heart, mind, and respect, you have his or her attention and can equip them daily to make wise choices online.

The dark web is . . . unimaginably dark. The underbelly of the internet — the encrypted, anonymous terrain known as the Dark Web — has moved from covert to mainstream exposure. We’ve learned the hard way the degree of sophistication with which criminals engage in pornography, human trafficking, drug and weapon sales, and stolen data. With more knowledge, the public is taking more precautions especially when it comes to malware, phishing scams, and virus attacks launched through popular public channels.

There’s a lot of good going on. As much negative as we’ve seen and experienced online over the past decade, we’ve also learned that its power can be used equally to amplify the best of humanity. Social media has sparked social movements, helped first responders and brought strangers together in times of tragedy like no other medium in history.

Privacy is (finally) king. Ten years ago, we clicked on every link that came our way and wanted to share every juicy detail about our personal lives. We became publishers and public figures overnight and readily gave away priceless chunks of our privacy. The evolution and onslaught of data breaches, data mining, and malicious scams have educated us to safeguard our data and privacy like gold.

We’ve become content curators. The onslaught of fake news, photo apps, and filter bubbles have left our heads spinning and our allegiances confused. In the process, we’ve learned to be more discerning with the content we consume and share. While we’re not there yet, our collective digital literacy is improving as our understanding of various types of content grows.

Parents have become digital ninjas. The parenting tasks of monitoring, tracking, and keeping up with kids online have gone from daunting to doable for most parents. With the emotional issues now connected to social media, most parents don’t have the option of sitting on the sidelines and have learned to track their kids better than the FBI.

This is us

We’ve learned that for better or worse, this wired life is us. There’s no going back. Where once there may have been doubt a decade ago, today it’s clear we’re connected forever. The internet has become so deep-seated in our culture and homes that unplugging completely for most of us is no longer an option without severe financial (and emotional) consequences. The task ahead for this new decade? To continue working together to diminish the ugly side of technology — the bullying, the cruelty, the crime — and make the internet a safe, fun experience for everyone.

The post Lessons Learned: A Decade of Digital Parenting appeared first on McAfee Blogs.

Attention is All They Need: Combatting Social Media Information Operations With Neural Language Models

Information operations have flourished on social media in part because they can be conducted cheaply, are relatively low risk, have immediate global reach, and can exploit the type of viral amplification incentivized by platforms. Using networks of coordinated accounts, social media-driven information operations disseminate and amplify content designed to promote specific political narratives, manipulate public opinion, foment discord, or achieve strategic ideological or geopolitical objectives. FireEye’s recent public reporting illustrates the continually evolving use of social media as a vehicle for this activity, highlighting information operations supporting Iranian political interests such as one that leveraged a network of inauthentic news sites and social media accounts and another that impersonated real individuals and leveraged legitimate news outlets.

Identifying sophisticated activity of this nature often requires the subject matter expertise of human analysts. After all, such content is purposefully and convincingly manufactured to imitate authentic online activity, making it difficult for casual observers to properly verify. The actors behind such operations are not transparent about their affiliations, often undertaking concerted efforts to mask their origins through elaborate false personas and the adoption of other operational security measures. With these operations being intentionally designed to deceive humans, can we turn towards automation to help us understand and detect this growing threat? Can we make it easier for analysts to discover and investigate this activity despite the heterogeneity, high traffic, and sheer scale of social media?

In this blog post, we will illustrate an example of how the FireEye Data Science (FDS) team works together with FireEye’s Information Operations Analysis team to better understand and detect social media information operations using neural language models.

Highlights

  • A new breed of deep neural networks uses an attention mechanism to home in on patterns within text, allowing us to better analyze the linguistic fingerprints and semantic stylings of information operations using modern Transformer models.
  • By fine-tuning an open source Transformer known as GPT-2, we can detect social media posts being leveraged in information operations despite their syntactic differences to the model’s original training data.
  • Transfer learning from pre-trained neural language models lowers the barrier to entry for generating high-quality synthetic text at scale, and this has implications for the future of both red and blue team operations as such models become increasingly commoditized.

Background: Using GPT-2 for Transfer Learning

OpenAI’s updated Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT-2) is an open source deep neural network that was trained in an unsupervised manner on the causal language modeling task. The objective of this language modeling task is to predict the next word in a sentence from previous context, meaning that a trained model ends up being capable of language generation. If the model can predict the next word accurately, it can be used in turn to predict the following word, and then so on and so forth until eventually, the model produces fully coherent sentences and paragraphs. Figure 1 depicts an example of language model (LM) predictions we generated using GPT-2. To generate text, single words are successively sampled from distributions of candidate words predicted by the model until it predicts an <|endoftext|> word, which signals the end of the generation.


Figure 1: An example GPT-2 generation prior to fine-tuning after priming the model with the phrase “It’s disgraceful that.”  

The quality of this synthetically generated text along with GPT-2’s state of the art accuracy on a host of other natural language processing (NLP) benchmark tasks is due in large part to the model’s improvements over prior 1) neural network architectures and 2) approaches to representing text. GPT-2 uses an attention mechanism to selectively focus the model on relevant pieces of text sequences and identify relationships between positionally distant words. In terms of architectures, Transformers use attention to decrease the time required to train on enormous datasets; they also tend to model lengthy text and scale better than other competing feedforward and recurrent neural networks. In terms of representing text, word embeddings were a popular way to initialize just the first layer of neural networks, but such shallow representations required being trained from scratch for each new NLP task and in order to deal with new vocabulary. GPT-2 instead pre-trains all the model’s layers using hierarchical representations, which better capture language semantics and are readily transferable to other NLP tasks and new vocabulary.

This transfer learning method is advantageous because it allows us to avoid starting from scratch for each and every new NLP task. In transfer learning, we start from a large generic model that has been pre-trained for an initial task where copious data is available. We then leverage the model’s acquired knowledge to train it further on a different, smaller dataset so that it excels at a subsequent, related task. This process of training the model further is referred to as fine-tuning, which involves re-learning portions of the model by adjusting its underlying parameters. Fine-tuning not only requires less data compared to training from scratch, but typically also requires less compute time and resources.

In this blog post, we will show how to perform transfer learning from a pre-trained GPT-2 model in order to better understand and detect information operations on social media. Transformers have shown that Attention is All You Need, but here we will also show that Attention is All They Need: while transfer learning may allow us to more easily detect information operations activity, it likewise lowers the barrier to entry for actors seeking to engage in this activity at scale.

Understanding Information Operations Activity Using Fine-Tuned Neural Generations

In order to study the thematic and linguistic characteristics of a common type of social media-driven information operations activity, we first fine-tuned an LM that could perform text generation. Since the pre-trained GPT-2 model's dataset consisted of 40+ GB of Internet text data extracted from 8+ million reputable web pages, its generations display relatively formal grammar, punctuation, and structure that corresponds to the text present within that original dataset (e.g. Figure 1). To make it appear like social media posts with their shorter length, informal grammar, erratic punctuation, and syntactic quirks including @mentions, #hashtags, emojis, acronyms, and abbreviations, we fine-tuned the pre-trained GPT-2 model on a new language modeling task using additional training data.

For the set of experiments presented in this blog post, this additional training data was obtained from the following open source datasets of identified accounts operated by Russia’s famed Internet Research Agency (IRA) “troll factory”:

  • NBCNews, over 200,000 tweets posted between 2014 and 2017 tied to IRA “malicious activity.”
  • FiveThirtyEight, over 1.8 million tweets associated with IRA activity between 2012 and 2018; we used accounts categorized as Left Troll, Right Troll, or Fearmonger.
  • Twitter Elections Integrity, almost 3 million tweets that were part of the influence effort by the IRA around the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
  • Reddit Suspicious Accounts, consisting of comments and submissions emanating from 944 accounts of suspected IRA origin.

After combining these four datasets, we sampled English-language social media posts from them to use as input for our fine-tuned LM. Fine-tuning experiments were carried out in PyTorch using the 355 million parameter pre-trained GPT-2 model from HuggingFace’s transformers library, and were distributed over up to 8 GPUs.

As opposed to other pre-trained LMs, GPT-2 conveniently requires minimal architectural changes and parameter updates in order to be fine-tuned on new downstream tasks. We simply processed social media posts from the above datasets through the pre-trained model, whose activations were then fed through adjustable weights into a linear output layer. The fine-tuning objective here was the same that GPT-2 was originally trained on (i.e. the language modeling task of predicting the next word, see Figure 1), except now its training dataset included text from social media posts. We also added the <|endoftext|> string as a suffix to each post to adapt the model to the shorter length of social media text, meaning posts were fed into the model according to:

“#Fukushima2015 Zaporozhia NPP can explode at any time
and that's awful! OMG! No way! #Nukraine<|endoftext|>”

Figure 2 depicts a few example generations made after fine-tuning GPT-2 on the IRA datasets. Observe how these text generations are formatted like something we might expect to encounter scrolling through social media – they are short yet biting, express certainty and outrage regarding political issues, and contain emphases like an exclamation point. They also contain idiosyncrasies like hashtags and emojis that positionally manifest at the end of the generated text, depicting a semantic style regularly exhibited by actual users.


Figure 2: Fine-tuning GPT-2 using the IRA datasets for the language modeling task. Example generations are primed with the same phrase from Figure 1, “It’s disgraceful that.” Hyphens are added for readability and not produced by the model.

How does the model produce such credible generations? Besides the weights that were adjusted during LM fine-tuning, some of the heavy lifting is also done by the underlying attention scores that were learned by GPT-2’s Transformer. Attention scores are computed between all words in a text sequence, and represent how important one word is when determining how important its nearby words will be in the next learning iteration. To compute attention scores, the Transformer performs a dot product between a Query vector q and a Key vector k:

  • q encodes the current hidden state, representing the word that searches for other words in the sequence to pay attention to that may help supply context for it.
  • k encodes the previous hidden states, representing the other words that receive attention from the query word and might contribute a better representation for it in its current context.

Figure 3 displays how this dot product is computed based on single neuron activations in q and k using an attention visualization tool called bertviz. Columns in Figure 3 trace the computation of attention scores from the highlighted word on the left, “America,” to the complete sequence of words on the right. For example, to decide to predict “#” following the word “America,” this part of the model focuses its attention on preceding words like “ban,” “Immigrants,” and “disgrace,” (note that the model has broken “Immigrants” into “Imm” and “igrants” because “Immigrants” is an uncommon word relative to its component word pieces within pre-trained GPT-2's original training dataset).  The element-wise product shows how individual elements in q and k contribute to the dot product, which encodes the relationship between each word and every other context-providing word as the network learns from new text sequences. The dot product is finally normalized by a softmax function that outputs attention scores to be fed into the next layer of the neural network.


Figure 3: The attention patterns for the query word highlighted in grey from one of the fine-tuned GPT-2 generations in Figure 2. Individual vertical bars represent neuron activations, horizontal bars represent vectors, and lines represent the strength of attention between words. Blue indicates positive values, red indicates negative values, and color intensity represents the magnitude of these values.

Syntactic relationships between words like “America,” “ban,” and “Immigrants“ are valuable from an analysis point of view because they can help identify an information operation’s interrelated keywords and phrases. These indicators can be used to pivot between suspect social media accounts based on shared lexical patterns, help identify common narratives, and even to perform more proactive threat hunting. While the above example only scratches the surface of this complex, 355 million parameter model, qualitatively visualizing attention to understand the information learned by Transformers can help provide analysts insights into linguistic patterns being deployed as part of broader information operations activity.

Detecting Information Operations Activity by Fine-Tuning GPT-2 for Classification

In order to further support FireEye Threat Analysts’ work in discovering and triaging information operations activity on social media, we next fine-tuned a detection model to perform classification. Just like when we adapted GPT-2 for a new language modeling task in the previous section, we did not need to make any drastic architectural changes or parameter updates to fine-tune the model for the classification task. However, we did need to provide the model with a labeled dataset, so we grouped together social media posts based on whether they were leveraged in information operations (class label CLS = 1) or were benign (CLS = 0).

Benign, English-language posts were gathered from verified social media accounts, which generally corresponded to public figures and other prominent individuals or organizations whose posts contained diverse, innocuous content. For the purposes of this blog post, information operations-related posts were obtained from the previously mentioned open source IRA datasets. For the classification task, we separated the IRA datasets that were previously combined for LM fine-tuning, and selected posts from only one of them for the group associated with CLS = 1. To perform dataset selection quantitatively, we fine-tuned LMs on each IRA dataset to produce three different LMs while keeping 33% of the posts from each dataset held out as test data. Doing so allowed us to quantify the overlap between the individual IRA datasets based on how well one dataset’s LM was able to predict post content originating from the other datasets.


Figure 4: Confusion matrix representing perplexities of the LMs on their test datasets. The LM corresponding to the GPT-2 row was not fine-tuned; it corresponds to the pretrained GPT-2 model with reported perplexity of 18.3 on its own test set, which was unavailable for evaluation using the LMs. The Reddit dataset was excluded due to the low volume of samples.

In Figure 4, we show the result of computing perplexity scores for each of the three LMs and the original pre-trained GPT-2 model on held out test data from each dataset. Lower scores indicate better perplexity, which captures the probability of the model choosing the correct next word. The lowest scores fell along the main diagonal of the perplexity confusion matrix, meaning that the fine-tuned LMs were best at predicting the next word on test data originating from within their own datasets. The LM fine-tuned on Twitter’s Elections Integrity dataset displayed the lowest perplexity scores when averaged across all held out test datasets, so we selected posts sampled from this dataset to demonstrate classification fine-tuning.


Figure 5: (A) Training loss histories during GPT-2 fine-tuning for the classification (red) and LM (grey, inset) tasks. (B) ROC curve (red) evaluated on the held out fine-tuning test set, contrasted with random guess (grey dotted).

To fine-tune for the classification task, we once again processed the selected dataset’s posts through the pre-trained GPT-2 model. This time, activations were fed through adjustable weights into two linear output layers instead of just the single one used for the language modeling task in the previous section. Here, fine-tuning was formulated as a multi-task objective with classification loss together with an auxiliary LM loss, which helped accelerate convergence during training and improved the generalization of the model. We also prepended posts with a new [BOS] (i.e. Beginning Of Sentence) string and suffixed posts with the previously mentioned [CLS] class label string, so that each post was fed into the model according to:

“[BOS]Kevin Mandia was on @CNBC’s @MadMoneyOnCNBC with @jimcramer discussing targeted disinformation heading into the… https://t.co/l2xKQJsuwk[CLS]”

The [BOS] string played a similar delimiting role to the <|endoftext|> string used previously in LM fine-tuning, and the [CLS] string encoded the hidden state ∈ {0, 1} that was the label fed to the model’s classification layer. The example social media post above came from the benign dataset, so this sample’s label was set to CLS = 0 during fine-tuning. Figure 5A shows the evolution of classification and auxiliary LM losses during fine-tuning, and Figure 5B displays the ROC curve for the fine-tuned classifier on its test set consisting of around 66,000 social media posts. The convergence of the losses to low values, together with a high Area Under the ROC Curve (i.e. AUC), illustrates that transfer learning allowed this model to accurately detect social media posts associated with IRA information operations activity versus benign ones. Taken together, these metrics indicate that the fine-tuned classifier should generalize well to newly ingested social media posts, providing analysts a capability they can use to separate signal from noise.

Conclusion

In this blog post, we demonstrated how to fine-tune a neural LM on open source datasets containing social media posts previously leveraged in information operations. Transfer learning allowed us to classify these posts with a high AUC score, and FireEye’s Threat Analysts can utilize this detection capability in order to discover and triage similar emergent operations. Additionally, we showed how Transformer models assign scores to different pieces of text via an attention mechanism. This visualization can be used by analysts to tease apart adversary tradecraft based on posts’ linguistic fingerprints and semantic stylings.

Transfer learning also allowed us to generate credible synthetic text with low perplexity scores. One of the barriers actors face when devising effective information operations is adequately capturing the nuances and context of the cultural climate in which their targets are situated. Our exercise here suggests this costly step could be bypassed using pre-trained LMs, whose generations can be fine-tuned to embody the zeitgeist of social media. GPT-2’s authors and subsequent researchers have warned about potential malicious use cases enabled by this powerful natural language generation technology, and while it was conducted here for a defensive application in a controlled offline setting using readily available open source data, our research reinforces this concern. As trends towards more powerful and readily available language generation models continue, it is important to redouble efforts towards detection as demonstrated by Figure 5 and other promising approaches such as Grover.

This research was conducted during a three-month FireEye IGNITE University Program summer internship, and represents a collaboration between the FDS and FireEye Threat Intelligence’s Information Operations Analysis teams. If you are interested in working on multidisciplinary projects at the intersection of cyber security and machine learning, please consider applying to one of our 2020 summer internships.