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Opinion and Editorial

Posting your date of birth online invites hackers

Shalini Verma
Filed on February 3, 2020 | Last updated on February 3, 2020 at 07.10 pm

Be cautious about your passwords and update your software regularly

Most of us have at least one personal anecdote about online security breach. If you don't have one, chances are that you don't know about it. Yet.

Compromise of personal data has become as normal as catching the flu. It can happen to anyone despite the best precautions.

The trouble is that so much of our life is in the digital realm that we need it all to be password protected. Our digital life has essentially boiled down to moving from one password to another. Managing and creating passwords is a constant learning and unlearning process. 

By the time you have made some customary mistakes and gotten past the requisite upper case, special character, numbers, and minimum eight characters, you realise that you had defaulted to your favourite password that was already used last time. Organisations are mandating that we have highly complex passwords, the kind that we ourselves find it hard to recall. Despite this and two-step verification, CAPTCHA, end-to-end encryption, biometrics and what not, we are nowhere close to a lasting solution for protecting our digital life.

Should we be worried about this? We should be very worried because of the enormity of impact on our reputation, our family, and financial health. A video, an app or a URL link from what appears to be a trusted source could cost us dearly.

In the case of the rich and famous, the cost is high and viciously public. In the old days, the rich and powerful built castles and fortresses. They would hire sharpshooters and sentinels to guard the castle walls, build a moat around the walls and populate it with blood thirsty crocodiles. It took a very special kind of hair for Rapunzel to help the prince scale the tower walls. By and large your family heirloom was safe behind those ramparts.

Today no fortress is strong enough to protect your wealth and reputation because they exist in an assortment of accounts, photographs, and messages. Your digital content could easily be the target of cyber espionage, cyber blackmail, or cyber warfare. Yes, that's right. Our personal lives could well feel like a Hollywood thriller.

Google recently found out in a 2019 commissioned study by The Harris Polls, three-fourth of high-risk users surveyed had faced a phishing attack. These include the likes of politicians, activists, business executives, and journalists. An overwhelming majority of them felt that they had taken adequate safety measures, even though 71 per cent admitted to using the same password for multiple websites. It's like having a signboard outside your home saying the door key is in the letter box.

In the cybersecurity world, password reuse is a dumb thing to do because hackers resort to credential stuffing. In common parlance it would mean using breached username/password combinations to hack into your account. Your favourite email-password combination could finally end up on the darknet, to be sold for a song.

Thankfully, now that almost everyone has a story of data breach, we are becoming more discreet. A 2019 study by Advertising Research Foundation found that US consumers are less likely to share personal information such as email address, spouse name, or email address. I find myself less inclined to saving my credit card details on frequently used apps. Convenience is no longer a strong driver given the material risk of losing money. 

Not surprisingly, the personal security market is picking up pace because individuals are now scrambling for digital protection. These companies offer secure password managers and virtual private networks for anonymous browsing. High profile families are engaging personal cyber bodyguards. There are companies that can be commissioned to run an executive exposure and threat assessment study. They proactively study the volume and type of information floating in cyber space. They create your family's online threat profile. They can even let you know what kind of people could potentially harm you or your family.

While the industry plays cat and mouse with cyber thieves, we need greater consumer activism to ensure that organisations that are making our offices and homes smarter have taken every step to protect our privacy. Ironically the same tools used for security such as surveillance cameras could be used to invade our privacy. The fines should be prohibitive enough to enforce protective measures and frequent audits by organisations.

If you are sending information to anyone, ask yourself a simple question. Would this information damage your career or personal relationships? If this were to broadcast on national television would it dent your reputation in any manner? I am sure you would have your answer. It is not just what you share, but also what your friends share about you.

Posting your date of birth online is an open invitation to hackers. Using public Wi-Fi is another open invitation to online thieves if you download a suspicious app.

We as users need to be vigilant about our security and privacy. Be cautious about your passwords and update your software regularly. Why keep a photograph or a video that could destroy your reputation? The risk to your reputation is just not worth it. Self-restraint is the wisest security measure.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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