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How safe is New Zealand’s disabled community online?

By Zach Thompson
Tue 22 Mar 2022

According to the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), those with disabilities account for 25% of Aotearoa's population, so what are we doing to ensure the safety of this community online?

In December 2021, the Ministry of Health announced an investment of up to $75.7 million in cybersecurity over three years to increase the resiliency of the health and disability system.

This came in response to both the Waikato DHB cyberattack in May 2021 and general recognition of the healthcare sector as an increasing target for these types of attacks globally.

Many may see this as an important step in ensuring robust cybersecurity for the healthcare sector in Aotearoa and in preventing future attacks.

But we must also address what we are currently doing to support individuals with disabilities in online spaces and what more needs to be done to ensure equitable access.

ODI Director Brian Coffey says the organisation exists to understand the issues people with disabilities are experiencing, speak up on those issues within government, and advise policy makers across government. He adds that the Disability Strategy 2016-2026 and the Disability Action Plan are two key components of the ODI's work.

"Digital access and digital inclusion is as important and in many situations, more important, for disabled people than for non-disabled people. So the risks of cybercrime need to be understood and managed, with those risks not being a barrier to digital inclusion."

Coffey notes there is New Zealand-based data and evidence that looks at feelings of trust and safety online among those with disabilities, as well as experiences of cybercrime or bullying, and knowledge of how to feel safe and remain safe when using the internet.

"The General Social Survey asked in 2018 about feelings of safety when using the internet for online transactions, and disabled people were less likely to say they felt safe: 61% compared to 76% among non-disabled," Coffey says.

Additionally, Coffey says that the Department of Internal Affairs conducted research around digital inclusion and wellbeing in New Zealand, looking at factors such as internet access and which New Zealanders would be more susceptible to 'internet violations'.

Coffey adds that the findings reveal a 3% increase in internet violations for those with a disability, 6.7%, compared to 3.7% for non-disabled.

In 2018, Netsafe published research about New Zealand teenagers' between the ages of 14-17 and their use of and attitudes towards technology.

Asked whether they believed the internet contained a range of valuable content for people of their age, 69% of those with disabilities agreed, compared to 80% of those without a disability.

Citing this research, Coffey says it also indicated 21% of teenagers with a disability knew "not that much" about keeping safe and secure online, compared to 11% among their non-disabled peers.

Furthermore, 24% of teenagers with a disability said they knew "a lot" about online safety, compared to 30% among their peers without a disability.

Netsafe spokesperson Sean Lyons says that with the rapid pace of technological advancements, the design features of a digital environment are vital to ensuring online safety.

He adds that technology is not the villain and that anything it can do to mitigate harm is incredibly valuable.

"It's not the technology itself that does the harm. It may well be the place in which the harm takes place, but we've got to be really conscious of the fact that generally in these situations, this is not an army of harming bots out there, these are people that use technology to harm other people," Lyons says.

"And there's no technological solution for people that want to harm other people, we have to look at it a different way."

Lyons also says that often there are feelings of shame associated with being the victim of cybercrime that prevent people from coming forward to report it.

He adds that it is important to recognise that it is not about the victim but the perpetrator, as they are the one(s) putting their energy into actively trying to harm somebody online in a way that benefits them.

"There's a thread that goes through many [people], where they talk about having a sense and intuition, at some point, that something wasn't right about a personal interaction, about a financial transaction, about a request that someone that they knew and trusted was making of them.

"That thread runs through so many situations of harm that we speak to, that I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't remind people that if they do feel that sense of unease about what it is that's going on, then don't ignore it."

Additionally, Lyons notes that the key to a cybercrime situation is to deal with it before it evolves into a larger issue.

"It's the idea of trying to be able to do something early and involve other people as much as you can to get a kind of broad range of opinion about whether or not what you're engaged in is likely to cause you harm," Lyons says.

"If it's a particularly difficult thing to talk about, sensitive, challenging, and you don't want to talk to someone, talk to Netsafe. That's literally what we are here for."

But although the ability to assess what is and isn't to be trusted online may be relatively straightforward for some, this isn't the case for everyone.

Coffey notes that while New Zealand data is not categorised by impairment type, international findings indicate that people with learning disabilities or an intellectual disability are more at risk than those with other disabilities.

"The risk for people who are learning disabled is associated with higher levels of sociability, loneliness, anxiety and depression, poorer insight, judgement, discrimination, reduced ability to detect deception online, and reduced experience and life opportunities," Coffey says.

"However, these restrictions should not impede online self-determination, participation and development by people with learning difficulties and other disabilities.

"We need to take care that others don't gatekeep for disabled people based on those other peoples' sense of risk.

"We need to understand the risks and support education about how to manage them, while always maintaining digital inclusion," Coffey says.

CERT NZ describes itself as "[working] to support businesses, organisations and individuals who are affected (or may be affected) by cyber security incidents [by providing] trusted and authoritative information and advice, while also collating a profile of the threat landscape in New Zealand."

While CERT NZ does not collect demographic data on cybercrimes committed specifically against Aotearoa's disabled community, a spokesperson for the organisation says it aims to assist all New Zealanders in dealing with cybersecurity incidents, and is aware of the online threats facing those with disabilities.

"At a basic level, the same actions that keep non-disabled New Zealanders safe will work for those who are disabled," the spokesperson says.

"Maintaining strong and unique passwords, using two-factor authentication where possible, and keeping your personal information safe online.

"In particular, keeping your software up to date is of high importance if you are someone who relies on third-party software to be able to access the internet, such as a screen reader.

The spokesperson adds that CERT NZ has begun converting some of its content into more accessible formats, such as audio, Easy Read, Braille, large print, and New Zealand Sign Language.

Speaking to this point further, Coffey says it is crucial to ensure that provided information on preventing cybercrime from public service agencies and private companies such as banks is available to people in a range of accessible ways.

"[These include] alternate formats like Easy Read and NZ Sign Language, as well as always making sure it's in plain English," Coffey says.

"It's important to remember disabled people are a quarter of our population, and they should have access to the same information and online services as everyone else."

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Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
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