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The truth about hacking

By Jean-Claude Elias - Apr 20,2017 - Last updated at Apr 20,2017

In movies, in the news and in real life, stories about computer hacking abound. Should you worry? What are the chances that you, a private user, experience an actual attack? Are there precautions you can take to avoid or at least to reduce the risk?

Hacking is a very real phenomenon, certainly exceeding the scope of fiction. It is also very common. If only big time hacking permeates out to the media and makes the headlines, less dramatic hacking takes place all the time, everywhere and every day. From Mr Everybody’s email that gets stolen and used to send massive spam messages on his behalf, to more painful credit card fraud and abuse, the trend continues and has gotten virtually beyond control.

Indeed, hacking is far from being limited to the sensational such as alleged vote rigging done by a country to another, or to snatching highly classified defence secrets. It happens at all levels and in all sectors. Two years ago international French TV channel TV5Monde experienced a broadcasting failure that lasted several hours. Investigation showed that it was an inside job and that someone had intentionally pulled out a few network wires from the servers’ main switch.

We all have to worry about being hacked, whoever we may be and whatever our business. Still, the risk is significantly lower for the private consumer than for big organisations, financial institutions, corporations, governments and the military; it is understood.

The size and the complexity of the networks, whether local ones or those going through the Internet, the mind boggling amount of data exchanged all the time over these networks and the density of the traffic, all are elements that make hacking more likely to take place than ever. Preventing it completely is impossible. It’s like expecting a megalopolis like Tokyo, Paris, London, Mexico, New York or Los Angeles to be 100 per cent crime-free.

Using strong, hard to guess or to decipher passwords certainly is a recommended method, whether to log into your computer or to protect your email box and other online services you may be using. By any measure [email protected]#7KBw” is better than “123456”, for example… As unbelievable as it may sound, a large number of consumers do use “123456” as password.

Still, strong passwords have ceased to be an efficient method to protect you against hacking. The criminals have countless ways to circumvent such protection. They can simply steal the password by enticing you with fake emails or advertising to “click here”. A huge number of free software applications that you may first be glad to download and install without paying a penny have no other purpose than to steal your password without you even knowing what is going on. By the time you realise what happened it is usually too late. Just like in real life, it is all about deception.

You can install good anti-virus programmes, you can even go to extremes and install a physical firewall (the ultimate protection as it is known), hackers will still find a way to get into your computer, your data and your files if they really want to. And then again, you have the “inside job” that every corporation fears. To which extend can you trust the IT technician or engineer who has virtually unlimited access to the network?

In the last few years the question of computer and data security has become a speciality in its own right, within the world of Information Technology. Like there are database specialists or web designers, for instance, there are now IT Security specialists.

Hackmageddon, the nicely named Information Security Timelines and Statistics web site, indicates that in November last year, 82.7 per cent of hacking was cybercrime, 9.3 per cent was hacktivism, 4 per cent was cyber espionage, 2.7 per cent cyber warfare and 1.3 per cent was unknown. Hacktivism is a neologism that refers to “…the act of hacking, or breaking into a computer system, for a politically or socially motivated purpose.” (whatis.com).

The site also provides interesting statistics about the sectors that are affected, as hacked targets. Surprisingly it is the industry that is the most severely hit, and by far. Single individuals come in third position (your reason to worry, as private user), whereas the military and social networks come only in ninth and tenth positions on the list, respectively.

All that single individuals can do is to follow the usual recommendations. These consist of using strong passwords and not disclosing them, disregarding and deleting even the slightly suspicious email or web ad, not clicking on anything clickable however glamorous it may look. It is also important to use clean, legitimate and original software, exclusively, not to insert into your computer USB flash drives from unreliable sources and to maintain original and updated copies of anti-virus software.

 

Avoid saving passwords on web sites during browsing sessions, and don’t let each and every one use your computer. It is called “personal” computer for a reason. If these measures won’t provide absolute protection against hacking, they will at least make hackers life harder.

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