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Generation Z Will Test Your Cybersecurity

Wed, 05 Jun 2019

Gen Z is coming to a workplace near you, prepare your cyber defences accordingly. 

Coming of age in a time of “likes” and “shares”; disclosures of government surveillance; WikiLeaks; headlines of major corporations and government officials being hacked; social media-made celebrity; and the court of Twitter and public appeal, Gen Z has very different views on privacy and technology than previous generations. Even differing vastly from the opinions on tech and security of the Millennials who came of age alongside the Internet. Some might think that what I’m going to say is a bit controversial. However, it continues the conversation on the theme of cybersecurity culture that I began in a previous post. And, yes, let’s clear this up right away, I’m speaking in generalities when discussing the characteristics and behaviours of generations - these are generational norms based on observations and research. 

Generation Z Will Test Your CybersecurityAll generations are concerned about their online safety. No one wants to be hacked, phished or to have their data stolen. But the degree to which the generations are worried about cybersecurity varies. Millennials, and especially Gen Z, are largely more trusting online, their desire to post, like and share, whether through Facebook or Instagram (depending on which generation you belong), makes them vulnerable to cybercriminals. It also makes them susceptible to corporations collecting data who, in turn, can be hacked. 

According to one study, older generations are concerned about online anonymity and ensuring their personal information is kept private. In sharp contrast is Generation Z who have always been online; therefore, have always been vulnerable – it’s their natural state of being. Gen Z is comfortable sharing their personal data to get a more personalized experience. In fact, Millennials and Gen Z are over 25 percent more likely than Gen X and Baby Boomers to opt for a predictive Internet. The study goes farther, finding 50 percent of Gen Z would stop visiting a website if it didn’t anticipate what they needed, liked or wanted.

So, in order to retain Generation Z as consumers, corporations need personalization opportunities which requires more data to capture and store. This is occurring at a time of increasing regulation (think GDPR). This creates a complex web of growing pains and makes compliance with such cyber-regulations challenging. 

Growing Pains

Historically, technologies always come with growing pains surrounding rights, freedoms, regulations and safe usage. For instance, with the advent of the telegraph, there was little legal protection afforded to the privacy of telegraphic communication. Seizures of telegraphic dispatches figured in major historical events of the nineteenth century, like the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Over the late 1800s, conflict developed between the federal government and the telegraph companies. See, the government had grown accustomed to using the telegraph companies’ communications for military purposes, and the telegraph companies came to understand that their customers expected them to protect their privacy and not divulge the content of their messages. 

In the late 1800s, each time the government and courts attempted to gain access to private telegraphic communication, a debate would ensue about the constitutionality of such actions. These discussions ultimately led to a new interpretation of constitutional law, including a legal right to privacy. They lived in a time far before reality TV, surveillance cameras, snap chat and Instagram. To those citizens, telegraphic communication was the new, rapid communication technology and new privacy boundaries had to be negotiated. Similar discussions have been revived as of late. Now, the debate is about how much data corporations can capture, store and sell and where the line should be drawn concerning the right to privacy in public.

Some governing bodies are attempting to step in and protect their citizens' privacy on their behalf. Regulations like the EU's GDPR only go so far in doing so and concerns corporations’ treatment of data, which offers little protection from everyday cybercriminals and hackers who target individuals. All generations of technology users need to assume there is no privacy. Everything you post, everything you share, everything you like online, every piece of data you give a company makes you vulnerable and when pieced together can create a complete picture, ripe for identity theft or phishing campaigns.

No Expectation of Privacy

In the age of social media, it seems that digital natives (those of Gen Z who have no memory of a time without smartphones) and early adopters (Millennials who were in their critical formative years, when IP-based technology took off) seem to have little or no expectation of privacy because they’ve come of age never really having had it. This has a profound impact on how both generations think about security and technology. 

Gen Z thinks they are being incredibly cyber secure, but really, they are falling short. Being digital natives seems to have created a false confidence. Gen Z, whose eldest members are now twenty-two, are entering the workforce. According to a survey conducted by Google, age 18 and up Gen Z members surveyed said they wouldn’t fall for a phishing scam (even though almost half of the respondents couldn’t actually define what a phishing scam was). A generational survey showed that 96 percent of Gen Z members expressed confidence in their ability to keep their online data safe. They also ranked the highest of all the generations polled in claiming to have never been hacked. Yet, the survey also found that 32 percent of Gen Z put little to no thought into their password creation (yes, I mean employing insecure passwords like the classic 1234). 78 percent of Gen Z members polled admitted to using the same password across multiple online accounts (that’s a definite no). I find this somewhat baffling. Despite being exposed to the Internet from a young age, members of Gen Z are actually the least concerned with online security and cyber-hygienic password practice.

The other cybersecurity challenge that Gen Z brings with it into the workforce is their view of technology as exclusively mobile and always connected. They expect to use their mobile devices for both work and personal activities and believe that having their connected one-stop-shop device makes them more productive than using a specific piece of equipment, like a laptop, singularly for work purposes. The global BYOD view of Gen Z is disruptive to traditional cybersecurity models.   

Millennials generally take the security of their technology for granted; with 80 percent saying they trust the safety of their information to the organizations they deal with. This may be why millennials are the most commonly affected cybercrime victims globally. Their risky cyber behaviour significantly increases their susceptibility, such as their willingness to answer online survey questions, install third-party apps, and use insecure public Wi-Fi.

The bottom line is that the Millennials’ trust and Generation Z’s upbringing can, and will, actually make defending against cybercrime and threat actors more challenging. A little bit of privacy and skepticism goes a long way.

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