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How insidious is the web?

By Jean-Claude Elias - Jan 30,2014 - Last updated at Jan 30,2014

Old tricks don’t work anymore, for users’ awareness and alertness are significantly higher than before. Fake e-mails that entice you with a substantial commission cut if you let them transfer millions of dollars to your account, and other similar scams are clearly outdated; they have become laughable matters. No one virtually believes them or falls in their trap anymore. It takes more than that today to deceive the online user. It takes a very insidious approach and some have gotten very good at it.

Direct attacks don’t work anymore, because of users’ awareness, the widespread usage of efficient software that provides efficient antivirus and anti-spam protection, and Internet security as well. So attackers and deceivers, whatever their intention, now use the most treacherous means to get to you.

False advertising comes first. You are browsing quietly, reading some news, when a small pop up ad appears on the side of your screen promising to reveal the secret of a successful diet that doctors have always known but have been hiding from you. Or it would be about the five things never to do if you want to avoid a heart attack. Or the secret to give up smoking overnight that the tobacco industry is afraid you may discover. It goes on and on…

Naturally you do suspect that something is not right but you go along with it thinking “What do I have to lose? What if it is true?” and you hit the play button of the ad. Usually it will take you on an endless video that creates some kind of cheap suspense and that keeps you listening and watching, without ever revealing the famous secret of course, but that tries to get you to subscribe to whatever service they want you to subscribe to in the end.

Most users start watching the videos. The majority understands the trick and stops after a couple of minutes, but a minority, say 2 to 5 per cent, goes to the end, gives in and takes the subscription.

Insidious advertising is turning into a major phenomenon on portable devices, hiding in the flabbergasting number of free applications you can find on the web, mainly on the Android platform.

There has never been a thing such a free lunch and the web is not going to change that — quite the opposite. When you download and install a free application, whether a game or a different kind of software, you can be sure that it comes with some form of ads you never wanted in the first place. In most cases but not in all, you can pay a premium and upgrade to the ad-free version.

This is not the worst that can happen.

If you are very careful, if you are web-wise and have a lot of time, you may read the warning notifications that are displayed by the software applications before you install them. They usually warn you about the risks associated with the application and that range from accessing your contacts, your mail, your Facebook account, to more sensitive information that may be stored on your device, including passwords, of course.

In plain, the application “reserves the right” to read and use your contacts, to get information about your identity, your habits, your taste, your device and your hobbies. Imagine the consequences! This is not just a potential hazard, it is real and it is happening every day. The large majority of users gladly accept the conditions and install the applications, happy to have them “free”. It is believed that a certain number of applications are designed with the explicit and unique intention of collecting information, nothing else.

It is time to realise that anything — absolutely anything — we do online, any application that is installed on our device and that accesses the Internet, are all prone to collect and send information about us, at various levels.

Protecting sensitive files with strong passwords can help, up to a certain degree. Strong passwords are made of 10 or more characters, with a combination of capitals, small letters, numbers and special characters. They should not have words from the common language. But even such protection is not an absolute shield. Those who can put their hand on your files will eventually be able to crack the code.

Besides, when today we keep thousands of files on even the smallest portable device, it becomes tedious to lock a large number of files with strong passwords.

There’s no cure for Internet insecurity and no magic protection against those who want your data at any price.

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