ECDL Foundation Blog

Safer Internet Day 2015

Posted by Tom Redford, February 10, 2015 at 09:00

Using a computer safely seems to have become pretty difficult recently. From the monumental hack of Sony Pictures, which revealed confidential personal information and secret film scripts, to the recently uncovered hack of Belgian telecom company, Belgacom, online security is a big issue. Most of us don’t have the responsibility of keeping a big part of the world’s communication infrastructure safe, but the techniques used in these attacks have their parallels in more domestic settings.

Safer Internet Day LogoIt seems the Belgacom attack can be traced back to ‘social engineering’ (using tricks and psychology to get people to reveal information) on several Belgacom employees. It might have been a little more sophisticated, but the same sort of method is often used in attacks against individuals. Your computer, and what’s on it, can be very valuable in the wrong hands.

Criminals have many tricks, such as calling and offering ‘technical support’, pretending to be your bank, or possibly even offering chocolate in exchange for passwords!

Since today is Safer Internet Day 2015, we thought we’d bring you three top tips on staying safe online.

1. Understand the Risks

It is an old adage that you must know your enemy and know yourself, but it applies just as much to computer security as ancient Chinese tactics. Lots of people think that there is not much worth stealing on their personal computers. After all, when there are plenty of high-profile targets around, who’d be interested in my photos of my cat or recipes for chocolate cup-cakes? But with more and more of our daily lives happening online—from shopping and banking, to filing taxes and registering cars. Compromising security in your email or Twitter accounts could have disastrous consequences.

Matt Honan, an editor for an online technology magazine, found this out, first hand, in 2012 when little vulnerabilities and a bit of psychology from the attackers saw his laptop’s hard drive wiped, Twitter account hijacked, email account deleted, and mobile phone disabled.

“In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.”Matt Honan, Wired Online

Attackers do what they do, and target who they target, for lots of reasons. In some cases, victims of cyber-crime are targeted for their political views, or for something they have said, like the ‘Gamergate’ controversy, where a number of women were targeted for expressing views about the place of gender in computer games. In other cases, victims are chosen for seemingly bizarre reasons, like Matt Honan, who was picked for his unusually short Twitter username. And in a vast number of cases, victims of cyber-crime become victims simply because they presented an easy target. The good news is, as risky as it can be to stay safe online, a bit of know-how and some basic skills will go a long way to helping keep you secure.

2. Recognise the Dangers

Once you’ve got to know the value of what’s on your computer and in your online accounts, and why people might do quite a lot to try and access this information, you’ll find it easier to stay on the lookout for suspicious activities.

One big danger is called ‘phishing’. This involves people impersonating an individual or organisation that you trust, to gain access to confidential information, like usernames and passwords. As old as the Web itself, phishing attacks can take the form of ‘identity checks’ where a person is asked to enter their login details on a fraudulent web page.

Fake Wi-Fi hotspots are another danger, which fool users into connecting to them by posing as legitimate services. Once online, the hotspot operator can see anything unencrypted the unsuspecting user is doing online. Even legitimate Wi-Fi hotspots, like those in cafés, can be dangerous places for security sensitive activities such as online banking.

So what can you do to steer clear of dangers like these? A good start is to always remember to check that who you’re talking to is really who they say you are. For example, an email from your bank can be confirmed by calling your bank’s customer helpline, and the address bar of your web browser can show you if you have a secure connection to a genuine website.

3. Stay Vigilant

If you have taken the first two tips to heart, you should be a long way towards staying safe online, but you should make sure your computer is as up-to-date about security risks as you are. This is as easy as remembering to install updates to Windows or Mac OS when they are released. You can even set these to happen automatically!

Running an anti-virus scan regularly should also be on your to-do list, and just as you wouldn’t leave your front door open when you’re out of the house, you should make sure that you don’t leave your computer open to the world, by running a firewall.

Even if you follow all the best advice in the world, using a computer, like all things in life, is never completely without risk. But with a little know-how, you can go a long way to making your time spent online much safer. You can even take an ECDL / ICDL module in IT Security, so you can be safe in the knowledge that you’re equipped with the skills to protect your online safety.


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