Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Safer Internet Day: Passwords and Protection

Today is Safer Internet Day - an event organised by Insafe to help people, particularly young people, become and stay safe in today's interconnected society.

Instant interconnectivity can be daunting to the uninitiated. Within a few minutes, you can have Facebook and Myspace tied into lastfm, twitter, flickr, blogspot, stumbleupon, reddit and literally hundreds of other third party games, apps and sites, all of which come together to help us connect to more people, more quickly, more of the time … every connection you make increases the amount of people that can see information about you – information that could be used to target you. If you have up to date anti-virus software and a firewall it will help protect you against many software based threats, keyloggers, botnets and the like, but it can’t protect you from the malicious and hurtful people you meet on and off-line. Passwords are the key to your on-line life. One of the easiest ways to break into your computer system is to guess your password. Especially if that password is on a post-it note, stuck to the screen. With the word 'password' next to it in block capitals.

Is your Facebook password the same as your computer login? It's easier to remember that way isn't it? So now, because of that post-it, someone knows your personal email address, date of birth, where you went to school, where you work, where you live, who all your friends are, every club you've been to in the past 6 months (and on what dates), what car you drive, when you bought it and exactly what your next door neighbours cat had for breakfast. In isolation, none of this information would be particularly useful in the hands of someone with nefarious intentions, but put it all together and it wouldn't be too difficult for them to impersonate you on-line. I hope your banking password is different...

Aside from the material risks, there is also the danger of someone manipulating your social life. Abusive messages to friends, offensive posts about others and publicised subscriptions to ‘entertainment’ sites you woudn't normally touch with a barge pole can all produce a pretty uncomfortable social backlash. This applies to all age groups, but the most quoted problem area is teenagers and cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is real, hurtful and dangerous. The faceless nature of the attacker can make it even more disturbing than a bloody nose in the playground or superglued books. How do you fight something intangible? The first step is to know what tools you have at your disposal. Every social website (twitter, lastfm, facebook, myspace et. al.) has a ‘block person’ function to stop people contacting you – and for serious incidents a ‘report this person’ process. Most have a setting to make this the default behaviour, and only those you select can get in touch. If you don't want to communicate with someone on-line, you don't have to - the tools are there and very easy to use.

I know several teachers that have have students who have experienced cyberbullying/cyberstalking incidents that have spilled over into the school environment. By this point, the victim had been terrorised for several weeks or even months beforehand. A trying time for everyone – especially the victims, but the trauma and fallout could have been averted with a few clicks had they only known how to protect themselves on-line.

Internet safety is not just about protecting your computer - it’s about knowing how and why to protect yourself. You wouldn’t walk down a dark alley on your own late at night, even if there was a sign at the entrance saying ‘Play for free now!’ Yet the same sign on the internet flashing red and yellow is often treated as a risk free invitation. A little trepidation is all that’s needed. A slight shift in your mentality from ‘why not’ to ‘why should I?’. Why should I give someone I don’t know the means to contact me any time they please? Why should let them see everything I’ve done and everywhere I’ve been? Why should I keep talking to someone if they’re making me feel uncomfortable?

Just as the internet has become an everyday thing, internet safety should be something that’s considered every day.

Have a look here for some useful information about password practice.

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