By Ted Baumann
You probably know the feeling.
It’s the early hours of the morning.
You’re in bed, but a strange feeling has wakened you.
You sense a presence in your house.
Cautiously, trying your utmost to be silent, you creep downstairs and peer into the gloom of your living room.
A curtain is flapping in the breeze, broken glass sparkling on the moonlit floor.
Something of yours — a TV, perhaps — is gone.
Almost everyone who has experienced property crime will tell you that the loss of physical things isn’t the real blow.
It’s the sense that the sanctity of home and hearth has been “violated” that really hurts.
That could be happening to you right now, in the middle of the day, even as you sit alone in your comfortable home … because if thieves aren’t hacking into your house, they can too easily violate your privacy online.
Passwords Won’t Secure Your Internet Privacy
The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) recently surveyed Internet users in 24 countries, and found that 64% of respondents are more worried about their privacy since Edward Snowden blew the lid on National Security Agency (NSA) spying.
Large numbers of people are updating their passwords more frequently and avoiding websites and software that might put their data at risk.
If only that were enough.
The CIGI report noted that more than 750 million people around the world have taken steps to improve their privacy since Snowden’s revelations … but that these steps would make “little difference to the NSA’s ability to gather data on them or to defy the surveillance techniques of large firms."
Indeed, passwords are of little consequence to a determined hacker — especially one that isn’t hacking into your computer, but rather into the mainframe of a company or government agency with whom you do business, where your password is stored along with millions of others.
Strong passwords are essential, of course, and regular changes to them are important.
(Indeed, a password manager I use has recently added a feature that can change all of your passwords with one click.)
But passwords can only protect you from garden-variety data theft.
They’re like burglar bars on your home — important, but once they’re compromised, you’re completely exposed.
You need more than passwords to be truly secure.
Protecting Yourself From Digital BurglaryHere are three ways to get started on a sound personal privacy strategy:
- An Alarm System: Most reputable websites now have a feature that alerts you by email or text message or both whenever someone logs into your account. Such alerts can also be set for transactions above a certain amount. I’ve saved myself money on more than one occasion after getting such an alert and calling my bank immediately to stop the transaction … even while I’ve been overseas.
- Play Your Cards Close to Your Chest: Every good poker player knows that the secret to success is to limit the information about you available to the other players. The same goes with digital security. Don’t do business with websites or use “apps” that ask for more information than is reasonably required. This is especially true of “free” services that essentially want information about you so they can sell it to someone else. Don’t participate in surveys, submit reviews or participate in other aspects of websites that aren’t strictly necessary.
- Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt: Above all, turn your data into a form that’s useless to anyone who doesn’t have the key to unlock its meaning. As I’ve stressed before and will surely do again, use solid encryption software and, where appropriate, a secure browsing setup like TOR. It’s not that they are impossible to hack … but they are so hard to crack that almost all potential digital burglars will move on to another victim.
It’s Entirely Up to You
The U.S. Congress has one again demonstrated its lack of concern for the wishes of the American people by recently endorsing the very government surveillance that Edward Snowden revealed.
A provision of the recent omnibus spending bill, inserted quietly at the last minute, stipulates that “any nonpublic telephone or electronic communication” sent by or among Americans that’s intercepted by intelligence agencies can be stored for five years, if it was obtained illegally.
With people like Congress looking after your interests, you might think that you’re on your own when it comes to protecting your privacy.
Essentially you are.
In the New Year, however, I’m going to become your partner in defeating the data burglars ... so stay tuned!