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Very few Canadians remember the campaign launched by the federal government last year to educate about the perils of cybercrime. But experts interviewed by the Calgary Journal aren’t surprised, since public awareness about cybersecurity is difficult to accomplish––worrying advocates who have seen the impacts of painful cyber scams. 

The Get Cyber Safe public awareness campaign is a large part of the Government of Canada’s national cyber security strategy to keep Canadians safe online. Led by the Communications Security Establishment, with guidance from its Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, the campaign hopes to increase Canadians’ dedication to cyber security and safety.

Beyond making infographics on phishing and multi-factor authentication, the campaign also created downloadable Valentine’s Day cards, an educational party game and holiday song parodies with cybersecurity tips. 

These efforts were followed by the government’s own Get Cyber Safe Awareness Tracking Survey, which was published in March 2020 and showed a large number of Canadians are experiencing incidences of cybercrime victimization. 

Two in five Canadians reported they had been a victim of a virus, spyware or malware on their computer. Furthermore, over one-quarter of Canadians indicated they had been the victim of email scams, with text scams and social media account hackings amongst other cyber attacks experienced by Canadians. 

The public knowledge

However, the same poll also found only two per cent of Canadians were able to name the awareness campaign launched by the Government of Canada, and only eight per cent reported familiarity with the Get Cyber Safe campaign after being prompted. 

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Those numbers don’t worry expert Charles Finlay, the founding executive director of Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst at Ryerson University, a non-profit dedicated to tackling the challenges of cybersecurity. 

“I don’t think that those statistics are an indication of how much effort or importance the Government of Canada is putting on this issue,” says Finlay, whose organization receives support from Ottawa. 

“The Government of Canada has made cyber security a priority, not just in public awareness but in investments that it’s made in relating to establishing the Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity, and establishing funding for law enforcement in respect of cyber security, and in establishing programs like Get Cyber Safe.”

According to Finlay, these statistics are to be expected, particularly those relating to public awareness of cybersecurity. 

“I think it is difficult to raise awareness of these complicated issues, and that is true not just in Canada, but internationally,” Finlay explains. “And it’s going to take a collaborated and coordinated effort from government, the private sector, the academic community, in order to drive awareness not just amongst Canadians but technology users internationally.”

Claudiu Popa, co-founder and chairman of KnowledgeFlow Cybersecurity Foundation, agrees and encounters the same problems with his non-profit –– which aims to educate teachers and students in Canada about cybersafety. 

“Let’s face it, security and privacy are not sexy things, so it’s very difficult to distract people from what they want to be looking at and reading,” Popa says. 

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In addition, Popa says the government is in a tricky position to tell Canadians to care about cybersecurity, as the government itself cannot protect them from security and privacy breaches. 

“If you call the government, they’re going to tell you to call the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, which will take a report and give it to the RCMP, but it needs to be significant enough. It needs to be a very impactful and damaging situation, much more so than just individual scams and theft in order for there to be something done about it.”

As a result, even if Canadians cared about cybersecurity and reported breaches of it, “they would simply be even more discouraged than they are now about the lack of enforceability and the fact that there’s no help out there for them.”

The mental impact of cybersecurity

Aline Vlasceanu, the executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime (CRCVC), is familiar with this situation. She says people often think, “you lost some money, that’s too bad,” but don’t realize the impact is much more for victims.

“The mental anguish that comes with these scams can be devastating. It can be debilitating.”

“Cybersecurity is one of the most important challenges that faces us as a society”

Charles Finlay

During her time at the CRCVC, Vlasceanu says the most common and among the most devastating cyber scams she has seen have been romance scams.

“I think we don’t speak about them enough. You know, 2021, most people are on some sort of online dating platform,” Vlasceanu continues. “It’s very common and I think we should be educating folks more about, you know, the red flags and things like that and what they can do to protect themselves.” 

Kathy Majowski is the board co-chair of the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, and much like Vlasceanu she has seen the impact of scams, especially romance scams upon the elderly Canadian population.  

“If they’ve recently lost a spouse, you know, they’re feeling that loss,” Majowski says. “Somebody is on the computer, sending them, you know, pictures and lovely messages that make them feel special, important, valued.” 

Majowski adds that for eldery Canadians, being scammed comes with an extra layer of shame and insecurity. 

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“Are people going to think that I can’t manage my own affairs?” Majowski continues. “[There is this] thought that, ‘Oh, you know, my daughter’s already been telling me that I shouldn’t be living on my own and now I’ve gone and done this, right. She’s going to definitely try to make me move out.’”

Majowski and Vlasceanu both believe it’s important for the government to prioritize public awareness about painful cyber scams so Canadians don’t fall prey. 

“First of all, it’s cheaper to educate, to prevent than it is to have to deal with the aftermath, right,” Vlasceanu says. “And not only that, but I think it kind of spirals out of control and there’s a lot of ramifications that come out of that victimization… We’re also having people that are suffering. We have mental health issues now that we have to deal with things like that.”

Finlay also believes cybersecurity is vital and an essential part of maintaining the integrity and privacy of technology, critical infrastructure and information.

“Cybersecurity is one of the most important challenges that faces us as a society,” Finlay says. “So it is very important that all Canadians understand cybersecurity risks and how to mitigate those risks in their daily lives.” 

He hopes the Government of Canada will challenge other parts of society including schools and the postsecondary, public and private sectors to join them in amplifying the message of cyber safety. 

“I think it’s up to all of us together to address these issues.” 

In response to Calgary Journal questions about the public recognition of Cyber Safe, the government sent a statement describing the purpose of the campaign and the resources it provided.