New app, Deepcover, to help older adults spot online scams

Anita Nikolich
Anita Nikolich, Director of Research and Technology Innovation and Research Scientist
Dan Cermak
Dan Cermak, Games Studies Coordinator

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn how to recognize online deceptions and prevent the spread of elder fraud. That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind Deepcover, a free new app available for download on Apple's App Store and Google Play that aims to equip older adults with the skills they need to safely navigate the increasingly complex digital world we inhabit.

The app borrows from themes made popular in Mission Impossible, James Bond, and other spy films. Users are paired with a partnerAgent Daring, Agent Intrepid, or Agent Valiantwho guides them through a series of increasingly complex "missions" to improve their digital literacy.

Dan Cermak, game studies coordinator in Informatics at the University of Illinois, led the app's development. He used his experience in managing the development of successful commercial games to successfully bring Deepcover to fruition. A critical part of this was building best practices used in commercial games into this free mobile game.

In 2021, more than 92,000 U.S. adults aged 60 and over reported losses of $1.7 billion due to online fraud, according to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. To fight this problem, the National Science Foundation (NSF), through its Convergence Accelerator program, awarded $5 million last year to develop tools that help older adults protect themselves from online deceptions. The University of Illinois has been a critical part of the award.

Anita Nikolich, director of research and technology innovation and research scientist in the iSchool at Illinois, serves as a co-principal investigator on the grant. After working for many years in cybersecurity operations, Nikolich understands what has worked and failed in security gamification aimed at users. "Our goal was to create a game that was fun and would teach older adults the basics of what can be very confusing lingo around digital threats."

Other co-principal investigators include Natalie Bazarova, professor in the Department of Communications at Cornell University; Dominic DiFranzo, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Lehigh University; and Darren Linvill, associate professor in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences at Clemson University.

While there are many digital literacy tools available, most are not tailored to older adults, which limits their effectiveness. Deepcover aims to address this limitation by including a wide range of online schemes older adults encounter. For example, it includes lessons about common cryptography terms such as cipher, which is essentially a code to disguise messages. While it may sound intimidating, the app presents this concept in a tile-matching video game, similar to Tetris or Candy Crush Saga. Upon completion of each task, participants are given a score as well as other remarks such as "intel gained."

Deepcover was developed in coordination with Whitethorn Games and MenajErie Studio, both of Erie, Pennsylvania. It is part of larger initiative called Deception Awareness and Resilience Training (DART) led by the Center for Information Integrity at UB. 

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