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Bad Consumer Security Advice

There are lots of articles about there telling people how to better secure their computers and online accounts. While I agree with some of it, this article contains some particularly bad advice:

1. Never, ever, ever use public (unsecured) Wi-Fi such as the Wi-Fi in a café, hotel or airport. To remain anonymous and secure on the Internet, invest in a Virtual Private Network account, but remember, the bad guys are very smart, so by the time this column runs, they may have figured out a way to hack into a VPN.

I get that unsecured Wi-Fi is a risk, but does anyone actually follow this advice? I think twice about accessing my online bank account from a pubic Wi-Fi network, and I do use a VPN regularly. But I can’t imagine offering this as advice to the general public.

2. If you or someone you know is 18 or older, you need to create a Social Security online account. Today! Go to www.SSA.gov.

This is actually good advice. Brian Krebs calls it planting a flag, and it’s basically claiming your own identity before some fraudster does it for you. But why limit it to the Social Security Administration? Do it for the IRS and the USPS. And while you’re at it, do it for your mobile phone provider and your Internet service provider.

3. Add multifactor verifications to ALL online accounts offering this additional layer of protection, including mobile and cable accounts. (Note: Have the codes sent to your email, as SIM card “swapping” is becoming a huge, and thus far unstoppable, security problem.)

Yes. Two-factor authentication is important, and I use it on some of my more important online accounts. But I don’t have it installed on everything. And I’m not sure why having the codes sent to your e-mail helps defend against SIM-card swapping; I’m sure you get your e-mail on your phone like everyone else. (Here’s some better advice about that.)

4. Create hard-to-crack 12-character passwords. NOT your mother’s maiden name, not the last four digits of your Social Security number, not your birthday and not your address. Whenever possible, use a “pass-phrase” as your answer to account security questions ­ such as “Youllneverguessmybrotherinlawsmiddlename.”

I’m a big fan of random impossible-to-remember passwords, and nonsense answers to secret questions. It would be great if she suggested a password manager to remember them all.

5. Avoid the temptation to use the same user name and password for every account. Whenever possible, change your passwords every six months.

Yes to the first part. No, no no — a thousand times no — to the second.

6. To prevent “new account fraud” (i.e., someone trying to open an account using your date of birth and Social Security number), place a security freeze on all three national credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). There is no charge for this service.

I am a fan of security freezes.

7. Never plug your devices (mobile phone, tablet and/or laptop) into an electrical outlet in an airport. Doing so will make you more susceptible to being hacked. Instead, travel with an external battery charger to keep your devices charged.

Seriously? Yes, I’ve read the articles about hacked charging stations, but I wouldn’t think twice about using a wall jack at an airport. If you’re really worried, buy a USB condom.

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The US Is Unprepared for Election-Related Hacking in 2018

This survey and report is not surprising:

The survey of nearly forty Republican and Democratic campaign operatives, administered through November and December 2017, revealed that American political campaign staff — primarily working at the state and congressional levels — are not only unprepared for possible cyber attacks, but remain generally unconcerned about the threat. The survey sample was relatively small, but nevertheless the survey provides a first look at how campaign managers and staff are responding to the threat.

The overwhelming majority of those surveyed do not want to devote campaign resources to cybersecurity or to hire personnel to address cybersecurity issues. Even though campaign managers recognize there is a high probability that campaign and personal emails are at risk of being hacked, they are more concerned about fundraising and press coverage than they are about cybersecurity. Less than half of those surveyed said they had taken steps to make their data secure and most were unsure if they wanted to spend any money on this protection.

Security is never something we actually want. Security is something we need in order to avoid what we don’t want. It’s also more abstract, concerned with hypothetical future possibilities. Of course it’s lower on the priorities list than fundraising and press coverage. They’re more tangible, and they’re more immediate.

This is all to the attackers’ advantage.

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Security Planner

Security Planner is a custom security advice tool from Citizen Lab. Answer a few questions, and it gives you a few simple things you can do to improve your security. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, but instead to give people things they can actually do to immediately improve their security. I don’t see it replacing any of the good security guides out there, but instead augmenting them.

The advice is peer reviewed, and the team behind Security Planner is committed to keeping it up to date.

Note: I am an advisor to this project.

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Research on the Timing of Security Warnings

fMRI experiments show that we are more likely to ignore security warnings when they interrupt other tasks.

A new study from BYU, in collaboration with Google Chrome engineers, finds the status quo of warning messages appearing haphazardly­ — while people are typing, watching a video, uploading files, etc.­ — results in up to 90 percent of users disregarding them.

Researchers found these times are less effective because of “dual task interference,” a neural limitation where even simple tasks can’t be simultaneously performed without significant performance loss. Or, in human terms, multitasking.

“We found that the brain can’t handle multitasking very well,” said study coauthor and BYU information systems professor Anthony Vance. “Software developers categorically present these messages without any regard to what the user is doing. They interrupt us constantly and our research shows there’s a high penalty that comes by presenting these messages at random times.”

[…]

For part of the study, researchers had participants complete computer tasks while an fMRI scanner measured their brain activity. The experiment showed neural activity was substantially reduced when security messages interrupted a task, as compared to when a user responded to the security message itself.

The BYU researchers used the functional MRI data as they collaborated with a team of Google Chrome security engineers to identify better times to display security messages during the browsing experience.

Research paper. News article.

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Over 700 Million People Taking Steps to Avoid NSA Surveillance

There’s a new international survey on Internet security and trust, of “23,376 Internet users in 24 countries,” including “Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States.” Amongst the findings, 60% of Internet users have heard of Edward Snowden, and 39% of those “have taken steps to protect their online privacy and security as a result of his revelations.”

The press is mostly spinning this as evidence that Snowden has not had an effect: “merely 39%,” “only 39%,” and so on. (Note that these articles are completely misunderstanding the data. It’s not 39% of people who are taking steps to protect their privacy post-Snowden, it’s 39% of the 60% of Internet users — which is not everybody — who have heard of him. So it’s much less than 39%.)

Even so, I disagree with the “Edward Snowden Revelations Not Having Much Impact on Internet Users” headline. He’s having an enormous impact. I ran the actual numbers country by country, combining data on Internet penetration with data from this survey. Multiplying everything out, I calculate that 706 million people have changed their behavior on the Internet because of what the NSA and GCHQ are doing. (For example, 17% of Indonesians use the Internet, 64% of them have heard of Snowden and 62% of them have taken steps to protect their privacy, which equals 17 million people out of its total 250-million population.)

Note that the countries in this survey only cover 4.7 billion out of a total 7 billion world population. Taking the conservative estimates that 20% of the remaining population uses the Internet, 40% of them have heard of Snowden, and 25% of those have done something about it, that’s an additional 46 million people around the world.

It’s probably true that most of those people took steps that didn’t make any appreciable difference against an NSA level of surveillance, and probably not even against the even more pervasive corporate variety of surveillance. It’s probably even true that some of those people didn’t take steps at all, and just wish they did or wish they knew what to do. But it is absolutely extraordinary that 750 million people are disturbed enough about their online privacy that they will represent to a survey taker that they did something about it.

Name another news story that has caused over ten percent of the world’s population to change their behavior in the past year? Cory Doctorow is right: we have reached “peak indifference to surveillance.” From now on, this issue is going to matter more and more, and policymakers around the world need to start paying attention.

Related: a recent Pew Research Internet Project survey on Americans’ perceptions of privacy, commented on by Ben Wittes.

EDITED TO ADD (12/15): Reddit thread.

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