In my position as a discount security advisor to the proles one of the hardest challenges I face is convincing people how important security is. Most people assume they have nothing to hide. They usually claim they won’t lose anything of importance if an unauthorized party gains access to their online accounts. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard, “If they get into my Facebook they’ll just learn how boring I am.”
Even if you are the most boring person in the world, preventing unauthorized persons from accessing your accounts is critically important. Failing to do so can lead to severe real life ramifications:
In one nasty spurt in May, a hacker gained control of Amy’s Twitter account, which she had used only twice before, and posted a series of racist and antisemitic messages. (See if you can tell where Amy’s tweets end and the hacker’s begin in the timeline below.)
That same day, a hacker used Amy’s email account to post a message to a Yahoo Groups list of about 300 residents of the Straters’ subdivision, including many parents of students at the elementary school that the family’s youngest daughter attends. According to local news reports, the message carried a chilling subject line—“I Will Shoot Up Your School”—and detailed a planned attack on the school. Oswego police quickly verified that Amy’s account had been hacked and that the message was a hoax, but the damage had been done.
Later that day, Amy discovered that her LinkedIn profile had been hacked, too. The hacker posted a message calling her employer, Ingalls Health System, “A TERRIBLE COMPANY RAN [sic] BY JEWS.”
Amy, who had worked at Ingalls for seven months as a director of decision support, had suspected that the trolls might target her employer. She says she had previously alerted the company’s IT department that the company’s systems might be compromised by the same people who were attacking her and her son.
She expected support—after all, if it was her house that was being repeatedly robbed, rather than her social media accounts, wouldn’t the company be sympathetic? But none came. Shortly after the hack, Ingalls fired Amy from her six-figure job, giving her 12 weeks of severance pay. Amy says she got no satisfactory explanation for her dismissal, other than a hint that she was “too much of a liability.” (A spokeswoman for Ingalls Health System declined to comment.)
She hasn’t been able to get another job in hospital administration because for months, her first page of Google results has included her LinkedIn profile and her Twitter account, both of which were filled with racist and anti-semitic language. (She recently regained access to her LinkedIn account after contacting the company’s fraud division, but her defaced Twitter account is still up, since the attacker changed the password to prevent her from restoring it.)
I won’t lie to you and claim proper security practices will thwart a dedicated attacker such as the ones praying on the Straters. What proper security practices will do is make you a harder target. The cost of attacking you will go up and when it comes to self-defense, whether it’s online or offline, the goal is to raise the cost of attacking you high enough to dissuade your attackers. If you can’t dissuade your attacker entirely you can still reduce the amount of damage they cause.
Twitter, Yahoo, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, and many other websites now offer two factor authentication. Two factor authentication requires both a password and an additional authentication token, usually tied to a physical device such as your phone, to log into an account. Enabling it is a relatively easy way to notably raise the cost of gaining unauthorized access to your accounts. If nothing else you should make sure your primary e-mail account supports two factor authentication and that it is enabled. E-mail accounts are a common method used by websites to reset passwords so gaining access to your e-mail account often allows an attacker to gain access to many of your other online accounts.
I also recommend using a password manager. There are many to choose from. I use 1Password. LastPass is still a managed I’m willing to recommend with the caveat that I don’t trust the new owners and therefore am wary of it as a longterm solution. Password managers allow you to use a unique, complex password for each of your accounts. If you use a common password for all of your accounts, which is a sadly common practice, and an unauthorized party learns that password they will have access to all of those accounts. Using a password manager allows you to limited damage by securing accounts with complex passwords that are difficult to guess and ensures an unauthorized party cannot gain access to any additional accounts by learning the password to one of them.
I must note that there is the potential threat of an unauthorized party compromising your password manager. In general the risk of this is lower than the risks involved with not using a password manager. There are also ways to mitigate the risk of unauthorized parties gaining access. LastPass, along with many other online password managers, supports two factor authentication. 1Password syncs passwords using iCloud or Dropbox, both of which support two factor authentication. You can also disable syncing in 1Password entirely so your password database never leaves your computer. LastPass, 1Password, and most other password managers also encrypt your password database so even if an unauthorized party does obtain a copy of the database they cannot read it without your decryption key.
Using two factor authentication and a password manager are by no means the only actions you can take. I mention them because they are simple ways for the average person to bolster the security of their online accounts quickly.
Nothing I’ve described above will protect you from social engineering attacks. Due to the lack of authentication inherent in many systems it’s still possible for an attacker to send the police to your home, order pizzas to be delivered to your home, call your employer and harass them enough to convince them to fire you, sending anonymous bomb threats in your name, getting your utilities disconnected, etc.
What I’ve described can reduce the risks of an attacker gaining access to your social media accounts and posting things that could cost you your job and haunt you for the rest of your life. And regardless of what most people believe, keeping attackers out of these accounts it important. Failure to do so can lead to dire consequences as demonstrated in the linked story.