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Protecting Your Identity and Your Network

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Recently, while a colleague was visiting a top university, he experiencedsome difficulty getting on the network there. He approached a student inthe library and asked for help getting registered for DHCP or wirelessaccess. Rather than point him to a help desk or IT assistant, the studentwrote down his own username and password and handed it over,saying, ''Here. Just use mine. It's easier.''

A study conducted earlier this year in Great Britain showed that at least70 percent of the people surveyed would give out their password for asmall bribe. In this particular case, researchers offered a chocolate barin exchange for the person's password.

I don't know which is more disconcerting... someone who is presumablyreally smart but sees nothing wrong with giving a total stranger accessto their network account, or that as many as 70 in 100 average blokeswould volunteer their passwords to a stranger on the street in exchangefor sweets.

Now, there are some issues with the survey. First, it's not clear thatthe survey population was statistically random. The survey was conductedat Liverpool St. station in London during an Infosecurity Conference.Second, researchers had no way to verify they were given valid passwords,since a person could tell them just about anything in order to receive achocolate bar. I've been known to make up answers to surveys in order toenjoy the benefits of participation.

I've also been known to make up the demographic information required touse some Web sites. I don't see the need for the New York Times to knoweverything about me, just so I can use their ''free'' online service. Imake it a practice to never provide accurate data to these types ofpersonal questions. It's not so much because I think they will steal myidentity (something I do think about quite a bit), and not because I'mparticularly paranoid (although I am about things like this).

I do it because I believe it is none of their business.

I suspect they are only interested in this data in order to sell it toother vendors. Interestingly enough in the case of the New York Times,they explicitly tell you they will not share your email address withothers, then turn around and offer you the glorious opportunity to have'special offers' from NYTimes.com Premium Partners delivered directly toyour inbox. ''Insider updates on sales and promotions sent regularly bythe NYTimes on behalf of select advertisers.''

Oh, okay. Here, allow me to spam myself.

Now, it may appear that the two preceding topics have nothing much incommon. The fact is, though, that we do a lot of damage to ourselves. Weregister for Web sites and then tell them to send us all the info theyever wanted to send. We choose passwords that are easy to remember... andeasy to guess. And many times we reuse passwords between accounts.

This all makes the identity thief's job that much easier.

In a more secure world, we'd use fictionalized personal data in order toprevent aggregate attacks.

In an aggregate attack, I collect bits and pieces of information aboutyou over a period time. I initially may see a piece of personal maillying on your desk with your home address on it. I use that to do areverse look-up of your phone number. I can call thephone/electric/gas/water companies and tell them I'd like to startautomatically paying my bills from my checking account. If you've alreadygot that in place, I can say, ''Oh, that's right my ''husband'' took careof that last year. I forgot. But I need to make sure you're using theright account because we recently switched banks. Is that the MountWashington Savings Bank account?''

Nine times out of 10, this conversation -- with a few variations -- willgive me your checking account information.

I also can use online search engines to find any references to you on theWeb. This will provide me with good clues as to what your passwords mightbe, and may even give me your mother's maiden name. If not, I can alwaysstop by your office and engage you in a little chitchat about yourfamily. I'm pretty sure you'll tell me enough that I can figure it out ifyou don't tell me directly.

This simply shows how easy it is to steal someone's identity. I'm notsaying everyone who makes small talk with you is out to do you wrong. ButI am trying to show how easily we can be targeted and victimized bysomeone intent on stealing an identity.

It's equally simple to protect ourselves.

Some people create an online identity to use whenever a site requirespersonally identifying information. (Obviously, in banking and billpaying, or online commerce, it's necessary to be able to trace it back toyou.) This identity can be added to your address book so the same data isalways available. A throw-away email address will protect you from themassive amounts of spam that are associated with so many online sites.

I realize this may seem obsessively paranoid, but take from it whatevermeans you're comfortable employing. Be aware of attempts by strangers orcasual acquaintances to solicit information. And remember, never, evergive your username and password to anyone... even if they offer you achocolate bar.

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