By Tara Longardner

WASHINGTON – The issue of illiteracy has moved into the cyber world.

Digital illiteracy affects the elderly, poor and those with limited English proficiency and puts them more at risk of cybersecurity breaches, experts said Monday.


In terms of communication, security means ensuring that messages are “only readable by the person to whom you’re sending [them],” Daniel Kahn Gillmor, technology fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, said at an event sponsored by the New America Foundation, a progressive think tank. “It’s the ability to act anonymously if wanted and to be part of a community not under direct surveillance.”


Vulnerable communities — the elderly, those with low incomes and people with limited English language proficiency — are specifically at risk. Things that most technology users know, such as using hard-to-decipher passwords, are often lost on these communities, the experts said.


“They don’t even know what it means to have an identity online,” said Seeta Peña Gangadharan, senior research fellow at New America. “We’ve spent weeks trying to explain what in the world a username and password is.”


Only about 51 percent of limited English-speaking households have Internet access, compared with 76 percent of English-fluent households. Less than half of low-income (less than $25,000/year) households have Internet access, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.


Some say this limited access means people are more secure simply because they aren’t online as much, while others argue they are at greater risk because their only access is on mobile phones or public computers.


A mobile phone is the most insecure not because of the device itself, but the network to which it connects. Smart phones do everything computers can, with the addition of making calls and tracking geographical location–which means that third parties can track these as well.


“Security must be addressed at an infrastructural level,” Kahn Gillmor said. “But we shouldn’t pit usability and secure infrastructure against each other.”