Our electronic devices are such a big part of our lives today that it’s hard to imagine what we once did without them. But our constant use of technology to keep in touch, pay bills, stay on top of the news, shop and research things has a downside: Our data can be exposed to criminals who commit crimes such as identity theft and credit card fraud – unless we take the proper precautions. Our growing reliance on electronic devices is part of the reason why careers in cyber security are growing at a faster pace. Jobs in information security, web development and computer network architecture – three fields at the forefront of cyber security – are expected to grow 22% between 2010 and 2020. Understanding the threats can help everyone do their part to make those jobs easier. Here are five top cyber security threats and tips on how to protect yourself against them, according to experts.
Malware and Bots
If you’ve ever spent a frustrating afternoon calling a help line to tackle a computer virus, then you know how pesky malicious software – or malware, for short – can be. Malware also includes nuisances like spyware, which allows digital hackers to track your every move and to view the passwords you are entering, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance, an organization focused on educating the public about how to use the Internet safely. Typically consumers get tricked into downloading malware by accident, when for instance they click on a rogue website or try to download what seems to be free software, like a screen saver. When criminals use malware to take control of individuals’ computers remotely to perpetrate financial crimes or attack computer networks and websites, the setup is known as a botnet.
Further, “malware can be spread by your Friends on social networking sites like Facebook,” says, Linda McCarthy, cyber security expert, former senior director of Internet safety at Symantec and author of Own Your Space: Keep Yourself and Your Stuff Safe Online. You need to think about that link your Friend is telling you to click on. Is that really a Friend sending that link, or was their account compromised? Don’t click on suspicious links, McCarthy warns. Spreading malware on social networking sites is growing at an alarming rate. “Even though social networking sites have systems in place to minimize the risk, you are still the first line of defense in protecting yourself. It makes sense that malware writers target social networks because you are likely to trust a link that came from one of your friends,” she says.
You already know that “spam” is the email equivalent of junk mail. But it can do more than clutter up your inbox. Some of these email missives can contain a link or an attachment prompting you to download a computer virus. They can also be used to defraud those close to you. For instance, someone who has hacked into your email account can send a message asking every one of your contacts to wire money because you are in distress – and possibly rope in a few people who aren’t familiar with this common fraud. The CAN-SPAM Act was set up to protect consumers from deceptive email messages, subjecting senders to fines of up to $16,000 per violation.
One common way for identity thieves to gain control of consumers’ personal information is through digital crimes known as “phishing.” In this practice, fraudsters create an email that looks like it was issued from a legitimate company. They will ask for a recipient’s personal information – like an account number or a password – and then use that information to commit financial crimes, such as opening fraudulent charge cards in a consumer’s name and running up big bills on them.
“Phishing scams are successful because they use social engineering techniques to gain your trust,” says McCarthy. For example, one scam claims to be a relative traveling in another country reaching out for your help. It’s an email from your nephew. He was mugged, lost his wallet, and he needs you to wire him money right away. “It’s a natural reaction to want to help someone in trouble. That’s what the phishers count on. Beware of social networking techniques and be sure to protect your accounts,” she adds.
Unsecured Home Wireless Networks
Many of us have converted to home wireless Internet networks to connect our TVs, smartphones, laptops, computers and tablets. And why not? It’s very convenient. But with these home networks come risks. Without certain protections, cyber criminals in the area may be able to access the Internet through your network and possibly gain access to your computer and other devices.
Data Gone AWOL
Given all of the places where we tote mobile devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones, it becomes very easy to lose them. If the data on those devices falls into the wrong hands and isn’t properly protected through techniques like encryption (the process of masking information using an algorithm, so that it becomes unreadable), it can be a field day for cybercriminals. It’s not just consumers who lose data. Forty-five percent of data breaches at companies are caused by lost laptops and mobile devices, according to a 2012 study by the Ponemon Institute, a research center based in Traverse City, Mich., that is dedicated to consumer privacy, data protection and information security policy. Even use of YouSendIt, Dropbox and other Internet-based file-sharing tools by employees – now a common phenomenon – raise the risk that confidential corporate data will be leaked, according to Ponemon.
But even if devices don’t get lost, it’s possible that in using them we’ll fall prey to cyber criminals while checking emails in an airport lounge using Wi-Fi on a smartphone, or while reading on a tablet over a mocha latte in a café.
“With all of your devices and more to come, be sure to have a backup strategy,” advises McCarthy. Many of the security software packages now include backup as an option. That won’t help with all of the data on every device, so be sure you plan and back up all of your important devices. There’s no telling what types of devices will be part of our lives years from now. The tech explosion presents immense opportunity for those with the creativity and know-how to make the gadgets we use better and better – and to simply keep them running smoothly. In the meantime, building a few smart cyber security habits is a good way for all of us to enjoy the technology we use every day with few hassles.
Advances in technology are not likely to slow down in the future, nor is our increased reliance on the fruits of that growth. New security threats will be a constant reality, which makes it more important than ever that skilled individuals step up to fill the increasing number of jobs available in cyber security, and that those who choose other career paths take steps to protect their own security.
A variety of sources, including Microsoft, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Cyber Security Alliance, the Bureau of Consumer Protection Business Center, Absolute Software and WatchDox, provided the data included in this article.
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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Information Security Analysts, Web Developers, and Computer Network Architects, on the Internet