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Last Updated: Monday, 29 January 2007, 09:52 GMT
Digital literacy 'urgently needed'
Many people are ignorant about e-mail security
We urgently need to expand our understanding of the risks we take when we use computers, argues regular columnist Bill Thompson.

A senior manager at lottery operator Camelot has discovered that adopting different online identities is not as straightforward as it might appear, and it seems to have cost her her job.

The contract to run the UK national lottery comes up for renewal in 2009, and Camelot is obviously very interested in the competition.

However things got out of hand when the company's media relations manager Alexia Latham used a fake Google Mail address to try to find information about other companies bidding for the contract.

Posing as an MBA student she sent e-mails to independent lottery consultant Glenn Barry, but unfortunately she did not do a very good job of covering her tracks.

E-mails to the fake account were automatically sent to her work address, but she forgot to turn this off when she went away for Christmas.

As a result an e-mail from Barry to her Google account received an "out of office" response from her Camelot e-mail address, and her deception was uncovered.

Latham, who resigned in January, is not the only person to assume that e-mails and other online activities can easily be protected from prying eyes.

Bill Thompson
These days television is just one way of using a screen, and not necessarily the most popular one
Bill Thompson

Last week's newspapers featured several stories about the ongoing investigation into allegations of sales of honours by the Labour government, and many of them focused on e-mail messages that the police are believed to have recovered from computers.

While the police have refused to comment on this aspect of their investigation it is certainly possible to recover apparently deleted e-mails or other files from computers and it would not be at all surprising if messages which had been "deleted" were still accessible.

E-mails are particularly hard to get rid of, since as well as the copies on the sending and receiving computers they pass through mail servers as they are transmitted, and the servers may have their own archives.

You might think that the people responsible for running the country would be aware of this aspect of the technology they use, but very few of us seem to know what is going on when we sit down at a computer.

In fact this sort of thing has been going on for a surprisingly long time.

Back in 1986 Ronald Reagan's presidency was rocked when it was discovered that his officials had secretly been funding the Nicaraguan contras from the proceeds of arms sales to Iran, ignoring laws passed by Congress making both sides of the deal illegal.

Part of the evidence against conspirators Oliver North and John Poindexter came from 5,000 e-mails which they had tried to delete but which were retrieved from back-up tapes.

It would be ironic if Tony Blair's premiership was blighted by a scandal uncovered because of the careless use of e-mail, given the attention this government has lavished on broadband take-up, the digital divide and the importance of the internet.

Lottery ticket
For some digital literacy is just a lottery

But it might serve a higher purpose if it makes people think more carefully about the secrets they entrust to their computers and to the network.

One minister who should be watching closely is culture secretary Tessa Jowell.

She used her recent appearance at the Oxford Media Convention to reiterate the importance of "media literacy" in the modern world, but unfortunately the official line on what this means doesn't cover taking good care of our online secrets or making sure that e-mails are properly deleted.

Communications regulator Ofcom defines media literacy as "the ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts", which is good as far as it goes but clearly does not go far enough.

Most of the attention still goes on teaching children how to tell the adverts from the programmes on TV, yet the brutal reality is that we are moving into a world where television is no longer the primary visual medium and the obvious focus of regulatory and commercial attention.

These days television is just one way of using a screen, and not necessarily the most popular one.

Banning commercials aimed at selling junk food to children from early-evening television may seem like progress but when McDonalds can team up with Neopets to push Happy Meals to more than 30 million young net users then restrictions on TV advertising seem irrelevant.

And adults who get their holiday advice from review sites that are open to faked postings or filled with unchecked comments are not helped by rigid guidance on endorsements for TV travel shows.

We need a much broader approach to literacy in the digital age, one that helps users of social network sites take good care of their personal information and avoid scams or snares, one that encourages e-mail users to use available tools for encrypting messages or adding digital signatures.

As computers and the internet become more and more important in our daily lives it is vital that we know how they work and understand the risks we take when we surf websites, chat to colleagues or send e-mails off into the uncharted wastes of the network.

Extending current thinking about media literacy to cover the wider area of digital literacy would be one way forward, and there is already a lot of work being done to refine and clarify what it would mean to be a well-rounded citizen of a networked society.

The schools IT agency BECTA and educational technology advocates NAACE are among the groups trying to ensure that the education system keeps up, but it is also important to make sure that everyone outside school is helped to catch up too.

Otherwise more and more of us will lose our jobs, friends or political influence because we didn't understand the network.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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