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Worried about data theft? 5 tech commandments for a safer digital life

We can survive a world of ever-evolving tech if we remember these principles.

Worried about data theft? 5 tech commandments for a safer digital life

(Illustration: Glenn Harvey/The New York Times)

Tech is always changing, and so is the way we use it. That means we are always finding new ways to let our guard down for bad actors to snoop on our data.

Remember when you shared your address book with that trendy new app? Or when you posted photos on social networks? Those actions may all pose consequences that weaken security for ourselves and the people we care about.

Vijay Balasubramaniyan, CEO of Pindrop, a security firm that develops technology to detect fraudulent phone calls, said we should always remember that any piece of our identity we post online could eventually be used by fraudsters to hijack our online accounts.

“Your digital identity, which comprises all your pictures, videos and audio, is going to fundamentally allow hackers to create a complete persona of you that looks exactly like you, without you being in the picture,” he said.

So here are some of the most important guidelines – such as strengthening passwords and minimising the data shared by your phone camera – to keep you and your loved ones safe for the foreseeable future. I refer to these as the five tech commandments in the hope that you will remember them as if they were gospel.

THOU SHALT NOT USE WEAK PASSWORDS

Let’s talk about bad password hygiene. About 45 per cent of Americans use weak passwords that are eight characters or fewer, according to a survey by Security.org, a research firm. (Fourteen per cent used “COVID” in their passwords last year.) The majority of Americans also acknowledged reusing passwords across different sites.

This opens doors to many security issues. Weak passwords can be easily guessed by hijackers trying to gain access to your account. And if you use the same password for multiple sites, such as your banking account, Target shopping account and Facebook, then all it takes is for one of those sites to be hacked to make all those accounts vulnerable.

For most people, the simplest solution is a password manager, software that helps automatically generate long, complex passwords for accounts. All the passwords are stored in a vault that is accessible with one master password. My favorite tool is 1Password, which costs US$36 (S$48) a year, but there are also free password managers such as Bitwarden.

The other option is to jot down passwords on a piece of paper that is stored in a safe place. Just make sure the passwords are long and complex, with some letters, numbers and special characters.

USE MULTIFACTOR AUTHENTIFICATION

No matter how strong you make a password, hackers can still get it if they breach a company’s servers containing your information. That’s why security experts recommend multifactor authentication, also known as two-step verification.

Here’s how two-factor authentication has generally worked: Say, for instance, you enter your user name and password for your online bank account. That’s Step 1. The bank then sends a text message to your phone with a temporary code that must be punched in before the site lets you log in. That’s Step 2. In this way, you prove your identity by having access to your phone and that code.

THOU SHALT NOT OVERSHARE

Many of us rely on our smartphones for our everyday cameras. But our smartphones collect lots of data about us, and camera software can automatically make a note of our location when we snap a photo. This is more often a potential safety risk than a benefit.

Let’s start with the positives. When you allow your camera to tag your location, photo-management apps such as Apple’s Photos and Google Photos can automatically sort pictures into albums based on location. That’s helpful when you go on vacation and want to remember where you were when you took a snapshot.

But when you aren’t travelling, having your location tagged on photos is not great. Let’s say you just connected with someone on a dating app and texted a photo of your dog. If you had the location feature turned on when you snapped the photo, that person could analyse the data to see where you live.

Just to be safe, make sure the photo location feature is off by default:

— On iPhones, open the Settings app, select Privacy, then Location Services and, finally, Camera. Under “Allow Location Access,” choose “Never.”

— On Androids, inside the Camera app tap the Settings icon that looks like a gear cog. Scroll to Tag Locations and switch the toggle to the off position. You might choose to turn the location feature on temporarily to document your vacation, but remember to turn it off when your trip is over.

Jeremiah Grossman, CEO of Bit Discovery, said we should be judicious about the photos we take and send to others. Explicit photographs could eventually be exposed to the public.

“People break up, and people are jerks,” he said. “Even if that isn’t the case, you give some photos to someone and they get hacked, all of a sudden it’s out there.”

THOU SHALT NOT SHARE DATA ABOUT FRIENDS

This is a lesson we have to learn again and again: It’s generally not a good idea to give away information about your friends when using websites and apps, especially with unknown brands.

When you share your address book with an app, for example, you are potentially providing the names, phone numbers, home addresses and email information of all your contacts to that company. When you share your address book with an app to invite others to join, you are giving away others’ information even if they choose not to accept the invite.

Typically, when you share your address book with an app, it’s for the purpose of finding other friends who are also using a service. But Clubhouse, a social networking app that has become popular during the pandemic, was recently criticised over its aggressive collection of address books.

When signing up for Clubhouse, users could decline to share their address book. But even if they did so, others on the app who had uploaded their address books could see that those new users had joined the service. This wasn’t ideal for people trying to avoid contact with abusive exes or stalkers. More than 10,000 users signed a petition complaining about the privacy flaw, according to a French data regulator, which last week said it had opened an investigation into Clubhouse.

Clubhouse updated the app this month, addressing some of the privacy concerns. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There are kinder ways than sharing your address book to find out whether your friends are using a new service. One way is to ask them directly.

REMEMBER TO STAY SCEPTICAL

All security experts agreed on one rule of thumb: Trust no one.

When you receive an email from someone asking for your personal information, don’t click on any links and contact the sender to ask if the message is legitimate. Fraudsters can easily embed emails with malware and impersonate your bank, said Adam Kujawa, a director of the security firm Malwarebytes.

When in doubt, opt out of sharing data. Businesses and banks have experimented with fraud-detection technologies that listen to your voice to verify your identity. At some point, you may even interact with customer-service representatives on video calls. The most sophisticated fraudsters could eventually use the media you post online to create a deepfake, or a computer-generated video or audio clip impersonating you, Balasubramaniyan said.

While this could sound alarmist – because deepfakes are not an immediate concern – a healthy dose of scepticism will help us survive the future.

“Think about all the different ways in which you’re leaving biometric identity in your online world,” he said.

By Brian X Chen © 2021 The New York Times

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