Privacy and Security Online

Last time I discussed the implications of living in a digital age with regard to privacy, today we explore some of those issues a little deeper.

Facebook and Twitter allow us to keep in touch with everyone from old school friends, to colleagues, friends, family and even make new friends. Great Right? Well maybe!

If your sensible, social networking can be an amazing tool; whether your advertising yourself as the next vine superstar, growing a business, keeping up with the antics of your friends, or planning a burglary, its uses are limitless.

Planning a burglary?

That’s right, while you’re busily posting all your holiday snaps – that random dude you added because you had friends in common now knows you’ve just landed in Florida and aren’t due back for two weeks. Ample time to grab the jewellery you inherited from your Grandma, your laptop, your TV, just about anything really. If you’re a regular on Facebook, chances are you’ve checked in at home in the past – that’s your address sorted without even breaking a sweat. If you haven’t, it’s not hard to find anyway.

Whether your posting to Facebook, sending an email, or even just browsing the web, you are leaving a digital trail. Even if you never added the random dude, can your friends of friends see your posts? Or worse still, are they public?

Getting scared?

All this doesn’t need to be scary. Just being sensible is often enough. staysafeonline.org has lots of great tips on doing just that.

Some people actually relish the data collection efforts of some big tech companies. Runners and hikers love the fact their phones now harbour an abundance of sensors that help track their accomplishments. For parents, having phones that track their kids whereabouts, and monitor their usage is actually quite handy. The same too for employers – you get the picture.

So all this techy advancement isn’t all bad?

Absolutely not! Finding a balance though is difficult. Personally, as much as I love technology, it doesn’t mean I want to compromise my privacy for it.

There is a lot you can do to secure your digital life though. VPNs are becoming ever more popular, and Tor is a useful tool for keeping your identity relatively safe online. VPNs and Tor both hide your IP address, replacing it with one of their own. Tor (and some VPN providers) also encrypt your internet traffic so that if your traffic is somehow intercepted, it can’t be snooped on. Tor goes one stage further and splits up your data, bouncing it round the Tor network in a way that the data is never complete anywhere except on your machine.

WhatsApp has made the news in recent months for offering end to end encryption. While WhatsApp isn’t the first to offer this feature, it is the most used messaging app on the planet, so its adoption of end to end encryption is encouraging. Joining Apple’s own iMessage and various others the messages are now readable only by the sender and receiver. Even WhatsApp themselves have no way of reading your messages or opening your images.

What if they get hold of your device?

I often hear people say that all their data is perfectly safe – ‘my PC has a password, its secure!’ they say. Then when it all goes to pot they ask me to rescue their data – ‘No Problem!’ I say. Thirty minutes later and I have a copy of their files on a hard drive ready for them. It’s not magic, it’s not wizardry, it’s not even hard. What it is, is poor security.

Our fictional burglar from earlier now not only has your family heirlooms and other valuables, he has your bank details, pictures of your children, your emails, your videos, access to your all of your private files.

Encryption. Encryption is the key to security. Encrypting your files will make it a darn sight harder for anyone to get at your files if they manage to get hold of your device. There are plenty of tools around to take care of it for you too. Your mobile phone has a full disk encryption option. If you use a Mac, that does too in the form of FileVault; and some Windows users will have access to Microsoft’s offering.

There are plenty of other third party programs too. Some internet security suites include tools to encrypt partitions etc, while many USB storage devices now come with encryption tools. One program that I have found useful for encrypting files ready to send by email or store in the cloud is Encrypto. Bear in mind that whatever software you decide to go with though, its only as good as the password you assign to it.

What about the files I’ve deleted? They’re safe right?

Nope! All of your data is still sat there just waiting to be read. The only way to actually remove the data on your hard drive is to write over it with more data. When you hit delete, all you’re actually doing is deleting the input in the file structure so that it doesn’t appear any more. The data is still there though, and easily discoverable with any number of programs.

If you want to sell your old device, it’s advisable to use a piece of software that is designed to over write the entire hard drive before re-installing the operating system.

You said I already live with ‘cyber nasties’?

Well, its quite likely that you do; and if you don’t, you more than likely will at some stage. Spending £91billion online in 2013 the UK was recently identified by the G20 as the most cyber dependent economy of its member nations. The UK population are a perfect target for cyber criminals. Phishing scams, ransomware attacks… we have it all, and it’s getting worse. Last year £16billion went astray from hard working people as scams, and malware wreaked havoc up and down the country.

In 2013 Symantec reported that 77% of legitimate websites contain exploitable vulnerabilities, while last year (2015) the volume of malware targeting mobile devices quadrupled, so malware is no longer even limited to your PC or laptop in the same way it was just a few years ago.

What can you do about it?

Anti-Malware is useful, but not full proof, so taking other precautions on top of using Anti-Malware software is just sensible. Safe browsing practices will make a difference, as will being cautious around emails you aren’t expecting.

One if the easiest methods of protecting yourself though is just to stay up to date. Ensuring you use the most recent versions of software and apps will mean you aren’t left with an old and exploitable piece of software. App and software developers patch their products regularly as vulnerabilities arise. They do this to make their products as safe as possible, so make use of their hard work and update!

It’s also a good idea to make regular backups so if you are unlucky enough to be hit by malware, you aren’t left completely high and dry.

Oh, and if your using a Mac don’t believe the hype, you should install an internet security suite / Anti-Malware program. Just because you haven’t been affected yet doesn’t mean you won’t be, and any malware you harbour that doesn’t affect you, is still transmittable to other Windows machines, so do the right thing and protect others too.

Still using Windows xp – DON’T, JUST DON’T!!