Paul Litherland: Teaching cyber safety to parents and kids

The 2022 WA Australian of the Year, Paul Litherland, started Surf Online Safe to educate schools on cyber safety. He’s now recognised as Australia’s leading expert in tech crime. As part of our 2022 Australian of the Year series, Paul talks about the biggest misconception around cybercrime and his top three tips for staying safe online.

Paul Litherland spent the last five years of his police career in the Technology Crime Unit. Throughout that time, he took calls from distraught parents whose kids had fallen victim to cybercrime.

Many of those kids were close in age to his own son and Paul found himself developing a deep empathy for their parents. But alongside that was also a growing sense of frustration at the lack of legislation, awareness and assistance for those affected by cybercrime. Something clearly needed to change and Paul was ready to step up to the challenge.

Rather than fight the system head-on, Paul decided to take the education route and began getting in touch with schools about running cyber safety presentations for their students, parents and teachers.

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What he thought would be a part-time gig quickly grew and led to him resigning from the police force to pursue it full time. In 2014, Paul founded Surf Online Safe and has since spoken at over 600 schools in the last eight years. He’s now recognised as Australia’s leading expert in cyber safety.

“It’s not until something goes seriously wrong - whether it’s being groomed, hacked or scammed - that you realise how poorly you’re protected online,” Paul says. “A lack of awareness and protection can cause people to be blasé with their risk-taking and makes them prone to being victims of cybercrime.”

Paul talks to us about the biggest misconception around cybercrime and his top three tips for staying safe online.

Tip 1: Slow down, take time to look around and trust your instincts. If it seems risky, ask questions and do your research.

What big educational gap in cybercrime are you still trying to close today?
"One of the biggest gaps is parents not knowing what their kids are actually doing online. Many parents say they’ll start paying attention when their kids are older but the online world is moving so quickly that you can’t take that risk. You need to know what’s happening with your kids right now."

How do you keep up with the speed at which the online world is moving?
"One of the benefits of working with schools is that kids are constantly talking to me and answering my questions. I’m always shocked by how advanced they are and the great lengths some will go to in hiding stuff from their parents. What deeply worries me is they don’t tell their parents when things go wrong. They suffer on their own. I’m trying to address this."