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Into the cloud

AT West Vancouver's Ridgeview elementary school, a class of Grade 7 students sits writing about how they spent their summer. It sounds like an assignment that 12 year-olds might have been handed 50 years ago - and every September since then.
The Grade 7 digital literacy class at Ridgeview elementary in West Vancouver is an online community.

AT West Vancouver's Ridgeview elementary school, a class of Grade 7 students sits writing about how they spent their summer.

It sounds like an assignment that 12 year-olds might have been handed 50 years ago - and every September since then. But this class is different.

"Let's 'clam' for a second," says their teacher Cari Wilson, prompting the kids to close their laptop computers halfway.

"I want you to go back to your blog page," she says. "Who is the audience for this blog? How is that different from when you text your friend on your phone?"

We're definitely not in a traditional language arts class anymore.

For the next few minutes, Wilson leads the kids through the technical steps of creating a blog and posting comments. Be thoughtful when you comment, Wilson tells them. Don't be mean. It's not OK to write "u" for "you" on a blog that anyone can see, she says.

Welcome to the brave new world of digital literacy. For the past two years, the West Vancouver school district has pioneered an approach to learning about the online world designed to help kids navigate the digital space they occupy.

A key part of the project involves linking all students in grades 4 to 7 on an internal network where they have their own digital presence.

"This is the way the world is going," says Wilson in an interview after class. "Likely any job they have is going to involve digital technology."

As the digital literacy teacher at the elementary school level, her job is to teach the kids how to function in that digital world "safely and ethically."

Knowing how the online world is similar to the "analog world" in some ways and different in others is "a really important skill for these kids to have," says Wilson.

Garn Kern, the district's director of instruction for technology and innovation, says the district's approach to digital literacy has meant a shift from viewing technology as simply a tool to seeing that "it can also be a place."

"That's what it's become for our younger generation. It's a meeting place that's often unstructured and often without adults," he says.

Connecting students in a network has changed the way both teachers and students look at learning - to something that takes place in a community.

"If you're in my network and you publish a blog post I'm going to see it and I can comment on it," says Kern. "We want our students to see that the room (of other students and the teacher) is smarter than (just) themselves."

For Grade 7 students Romina Pourmina and Meghan Christensen MacDonald, the "cloud" is a place where they already spend a lot of time.

"I'm on Google," says Meghan.

"I'm on Skype. Or Hotmail," says Romina.

"It's something most preteens do," she adds. "Just last night I was talking to six people at once. If somebody lives a block away, we'll still go on Skype."

Game sites like miniclip are popular with their peer group. Romina says she also follows people from reality TV show Dance Moms on Twitter.

"I don't really tweet," she says. "I just watch their tweets." While Facebook is supposedly limited to those older than 13, Romina says she also knows many younger kids who use it.

Both girls say they try to be cautious about the online world. They've been warned about the dangers of sharing too much information. "People can stalk you . . . they can find out how you get to school," she says.

Like it or not, digital technology is here to stay, says Wilson. "It's part of everyday life," she says. "If we ignore that and we don't teach the kids how to be safe and how to be ethical, they're either going to be at a disadvantage or they're going to learn stuff we maybe don't want them to learn."

Kern describes the West Vancouver school district's internal network as a "walled garden" approach, where kids can make mistakes and not have that follow them like a digital shadow, the way it would in a public network.

"Their world is very different than the world we grew up in," says Wilson. "When you grew up in the '60s and '70s you could do all sorts of stupid things and most people never heard of it."

"Now you do something stupid at a party and someone puts it on Facebook and it's there forever."

Privacy is a concept that is shifting as more people go online and use social media, says Peter Chow-White, an associate professor in Simon Fraser University's school of communication.

It's also a concept young generations approach differently than their parents did. At one time, "Privacy was assumed," says Chow-White. "What you did in your own home was your own business."

But for many people in their teens and early 20s, "They grew up in a world where the default setting is sharing."

Part of that is tied to "an innate need to connect," says Chow-White. "We need to share our life experiences."

That connection - or lack of it - also has real impact on our lives, he says.

Kids aren't the only ones connecting online. Professionals looking for a boost in the business world often post their profiles on LinkedIn.

People who work in entertainment or media are frequently expected to cultivate a Twitter following. Chow-White says he's heard of a requirement to "tweet" even being written into employment contracts. "In some fields you need to be on social media to exist," he says.

Unlike previous face-to-face interactions, though, social media has become "a mash-up of social life," says Chow-White, where people must present themselves to multiple audiences at once.

In real life, there's usually only one audience at a time and "How we talk to our friends is different than how we talk to our parents or employers," he says. "But in social media, it's very different."

While navigating through that maze, management of privacy settings has also become "an enormous task," says Chow-White. Most people don't have the time or inclination to constantly check those.

"It's like saying 'Why didn't you read the entire terms of use before you clicked it?'" he says. "Nobody does."

The result is that most people have a digital profile that is more extensive than they realize.

Social media sites and applications that run on them sell information to third parties in order to market their products to specific audiences.

Sometimes social media sites have been reluctant to admit to that practice. A report by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada this year into the Canadian teen-oriented site Nexopia concluded the site didn't tell users it was sharing their personal information with advertisers.

It also hadn't told users that it kept any friends' email addresses provided and that it wasn't removing users' information even when they supposedly deleted their accounts.

"We don't know the extent of what's happening in those databases," says Chow-White. "They're sorting people."

Denis Gagnon, a West Vancouver private investigator with a growing practice in the area of cyber crime, worries about that.

"It's like opening your front door. Would you let anybody come into your apartment? Probably not," says Gagnon, a former RCMP officer who runs the company BCS Investigations.

Online, however, "They let them come into their life and have a burrito."

As an investigator, Gagnon says he loves Facebook. "We 'befriend' people on a daily basis," he says. "They have no idea who were are.

"Then they'll post photos of their house, their family and their car, saying 'I'm away for three weeks on vacation.'"

Because the Internet is faceless, you never really know who you're dealing with, says Gagnon.

"I can go to the Internet and call myself Jane Doe, register a new Gmail address and I'm in business."

Understanding that what is presented online may not be what it appears to be is a big part of the digital literacy that's now taught to students.

Wilson tries to stress to her classes that just because someone posts it online doesn't mean it's true.

She likes to point to a site now well known among digital literacy educators that describes the endangered "Pacific tree octopus" in detail.

"The site looks real," she says. But of course it's a fake.

One of the top five listings that pops up under "Martin Luther King" on search engines is actually run by a white supremacist group, she adds. It's important for kids to learn they often can't take what they see online at face value. "You have to fact check," look for multiple sources and assess the sources, she tells them.

It's a lesson that many adults could stand to learn, says Const. Dave Townsend, who works in the economic crime unit of the North Vancouver RCMP.

"Phishing" scams, where victims get sent emails making them bogus offers or asking for personal information, are common - especially on the North Shore, where scammers often target seniors. Often victims will get an officiallooking email supposedly from a bank or other legitimate organization.

One recently making the rounds ostensibly came from the Canada Revenue Agency, investigating people for tax evasion. It asked victims to confirm their identity by supplying personal information.

One North Vancouver woman decided to go public three years ago after she learned about scams the hard way. She was fooled by a letter from "Hotmail" asking for her password and other details. Scammers then logged into her account and started sending letters out to everyone in her address book, asking for money to cover an "emergency."

Most victims aren't so open.

"One of the huge problems with any kind of fraud is under-reporting," says Townsend. Most people are too embarrassed to admit they've been duped.

Some have been taken in after giving over too much personal information on questionable websites like Backpage or, says Gagnon.

Others who've lost money don't bother to report it because they figure it won't help them get their cash back. They're usually right, says Townsend.

But by reporting the fraud, it allows antifraud investigators a means to get the sites shut down so they don't scam other people.

Instead of deleting a phishing email, Townsend says a better idea is to forward it to the Canadian anti-fraud centre at info@ There, investigators mine the email for data that will sometimes connect it to other frauds.

Similar scams are also conducted by cellphone and text messages. In some cases, cyber criminals will redirect computer users away from legitimate websites to "spoofed" sites that they control.

Some victims on the North Shore have lost massive amounts of money in online scams.

"We've had cases in North Vancouver that are well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Townsend. One retired health-care worker lost $129,000. "It's heartbreaking," says Townsend. "His pension is gone."

"That's not even the worst case," he said - that clocks in with a loss of more than $500,000.

Townsend said he doesn't see those duped online as any more gullible than people duped in other more traditional ways - such as bogus stock market investments.

"A lot of people invested in Bre-X too," he says. "People have lost a lot of their skepticism."

Depending on what information they get, cyber criminals can use what victims divulge to steal their identity and run up their credit.

"It takes a long time to fix your credit if people take your identity and say they are you," says Gagnon.

In one of the North Shore's more notorious cases, a smooth talking con man named Kaymar Jahanrakshan bought a fleet of luxury cars - including two worth more than $110,000 from a North Vancouver dealership - on fake international credit.

Most cyber criminals are not such high rollers. More likely, they are drug addicts looking for quick money to feed their habit.

"We know of at least one drug dealer who's switched over to fraud," said Townsend. "He said 'Nobody is trying to kill me anymore, and there's enough money for everybody.'"

Once criminals have your information, they'll often sell it to others. "You can buy reams of the data online," says Townsend.

A couple of years ago, lists of stolen credit card numbers were being openly listed for sale on Craigslist, he says, under the heading "rare books."

"You could say 'I want them to be gold cards and a limit of $5,000. The higher the limit, the higher the cost (of the list)."

Both Gagnon and Townsend said it pays to be cautious online.

Tweeting your every movement, for instance, isn't especially smart.

In the course of one investigation, "I was following someone and she was tweeting," says Gagnon. "We knew exactly where she was. We didn't even have to follow her. We just showed up where she was having coffee."

There are some common sense rules to the online world that aren't that different from those in the real world.

Don't respond to emails asking for personal information. Make sure your anti-virus software is up to date - not five years old.

Don't overshare online. Know who your "friends" are.

Don't leave your "smart phone" lying around. Make sure it has a password that's not easily guessed. "It's actually a dumb phone," says Gagnon. "The phone doesn't think and it's not that secure."

Of course, the online world is not all about lurking danger.

It's also about a new way of relating to each other, creating communities and about "the ability to use technology in a way that enables you and makes you more creative," says Wilson.

It's a landscape that's quickly shifting.

When Chow-White was studying at a leading communications school only six years ago, "We weren't even talking about social media back then," he says. In the time since, social media has gone from broadcasting banal details of what people ate for breakfast to people tweeting details of uprisings as they happened in the Arab Spring.

Throughout those phases, people have always been making choices about to what extent they want to engage online, says Chow-White, and what they consider public versus private. "That's up to an individual," he says. "Some people think of a wedding proposal as private. Some do it front of a stadium full of people."

Our choices, he says, "Tell us more about us than they do about technology."

Click here to see RELATED STORY:

How to avoid being scammed, shamed or victimized online

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