Online Privacy in the Age of Everyday “Big Brothers”
Internet privacy may be a myth in the 21st century. Just look at the news cycle for the past several months: it has been dominated by the classified documents that Edward Snowden leaked from the National Security Agency. The documents show that the United States government is constantly spying on not only foreigners within the US, but also on citizens at home and abroad, as well as aliens physically in their own countries. The news has wrought a worldwide fear that we live in an age that lacks privacy. People no longer feel comfortable speaking freely to friends and relatives over the phone or though email. The scariest part is that most of these fearful people are placing their concern with the wrong entity.
Yes, one can worry about Big Brother from now until the end of days. But if a person doesn’t break the law and lives life relatively sin-free, there’s little to worry about in regard to data the government may have on you. The real concern should be what damage regular people surveilling your activities can do to irreparably harm your life.
Dangers of Virtual Reality
Maybe you click on a link in an email for Amazon, Bank of America, or your gas company. The email looks like your other emails from the company, and the website at the other end of the link looks just like the one you normally use. This is one of the easiest ways to gain access to your cyber-life. It looks legitimate, and users are ready to enter their username and password. Later on, when your bank account is emptied and your credit card fraudulently used, you realize that a scammer created a facsimile that you fell for, and you gave the scammer all the information he or she needed to access any account you use that information from. This is referred to as phishing.
But maybe you’re smart. Smarter than those other Internet users who don’t watch where they’re going when “crossing the street.” The problem is that an increase in Internet user savvy in spotting scams is always met and surpassed with hackers growing wilier about creating them.
A new trend that has been in the news—though not nearly as much as the NSA reveals—is revenge porn. Although the standard definition is having nude photos you took with a significant other posted on the Internet after a nasty break-up, this is not the only form revenge porn can take. In fact, there are other forms that the person in the photo is much less responsible for.
Beware of the RATs
Look at the case from last fall involving Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf. The Washington Post reports that she was emailed two nude photos of herself that she had never seen. The FBI found that a former high school classmate had software on his computer that allowed him to spy remotely on Wolf, and others, through the webcams built into their computers. This is done by using a RAT, or Remote Administration Tool, to control another person’s computer through the Internet.
Until this point it was widely believed that you were safe from this type of hacking as long as you watched out for the LED light next to the webcam—if it’s on it means it’s in use. Wolf says her light was never on, and a former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico says the agency found a way to activate a computer’s camera without igniting the light years ago, likely meaning serious computer hackers could do so as well. A professor and graduate student at Johns Hopkins recently wrote a paper about the ability to hack Apple computers without turning on the light
Social Engineering Is Out-Laws-ed
A huge proponent of legislation to prevent revenge porn is Charlotte Laws. She got involved after her daughter’s email was hacked by a scammer using social engineering, which is using psychological manipulation to get a person to divulge personal information.
In this type of situation, which Charlotte’s daughter Kayla suffered, a group of friends is targeted all at once. The hacker uses Facebook to imitate the victim to make his or her friends think they were talking to the victim. Of course, if you’re talking to a friend you’re likely to reveal personal information, and that information helped the hacker access the victims’ email accounts. Now the hacker not only has access to photos you posted on Facebook, but also to anything hidden in your private email.
Kayla was made aware that intimate photos she had taken of herself and emailed from her cell phone to her computer—but never sent to anyone else—were posted on a revenge porn website called “Is Anyone Up?” when her friend Katie was perusing the site after a male friend of hers was extorted with photos of himself posted. When Kayla went to see for herself she found photos of another friend of hers posted as well.
Websites like “Is Anyone Up?” don’t just post your photo though. Your name, phone number, address, place of employment, and other personal information may be posted, and users of the porn site are encouraged to harass you with the information. Not only may your friends and family be sent to nude photos, but your employer can be as well.
Charlotte set out on a vendetta to help other victims of this website. She wasn’t sure what accounts of the victims’ had been hacked, so she used the phone numbers that were posted on the site, or available on White Pages, to call the victims. What she found was that more than 50 percent of the dozens of victims she contacted had either been hacked or had photos of their face Photoshopped onto nude bodies of other women.
It wasn’t a secret who was running the website: Hunter Moore was an entrepreneur in California who called himself a “professional life ruiner” in interviews, and obviously got off on running sites like this, and adjacent sites that blackmailed victims into paying to have their photos taken down from the first website. He hired a hacker who went by the likely made-up name Gary Jones to do the dirty work. And he was fearless; he knew how unlikely it was for victims to fight him in court because a civil suit costs about $60,000, and would make the photo a public record, exposing it to even more eyes.
Charlotte told Veritas News that the thinks the only solution to revenge porn is through legislation because you can’t prevent yourself from being hacked. But that also doesn’t mean people should shun the Internet, because that isn’t realistic in today’s world. Here is some advice she shared for our readers to better protect themselves. You can also visit endrevengeporn.org for more resources and attorneys to help with a law suit at little or no cost:
- Build up your online presence. If you have a common name it is less likely that a nude photo will pop up on the first page of search results when your name is Googled. If you have a more rare name, the chances are that the photo will pop up higher on the list of search results. Combat this by creating legitimate profiles on respectable social media sites. These should push the unwanted photo further down the list.
- Do NOT delete the nude photos of yourself. As soon as you take them make sure you save them. Whether you print the photo out or save it on an external hard drive it doesn’t matter. This is vital because one way to get a website to cease and desist publishing your photos is if you have proof that you took them, which means you own the copyright. Don’t delete any headshots either, or really any photos, because the same rule applies if a photo of your face is morphed with another person’s body.
- Call on your local representative to support laws that protect users from revenge porn. The only state with a law on the books is New Jersey, but Charlotte has worked with California State Sen. Anthony Cannella and a few others to finally get a law passed in California.
Other Protection Methods
Charlotte’s advice is great for situations in which you are hacked, but what if you fall victim to another form of online torture? Here are some important steps to ensure your safety online in general:
1. Cover Your Webcam
Put a piece of tape over your camera when you’re not using it, or buy a more sophisticated cover, such as Eyebloc, a 3D-printed piece of plastic shaped like a shield that slips over your webcam. It sells on Amazon and eyebloc.com for $6.99.
2. Two-Step Verification
Sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many free email services have an option to add an extra layer of safety beyond your password so that you can only enter your account with both your password and a code that is texted to you. With Gmail, for example, you can’t log-in on a new computer if you don’t have your cell phone with you.
3. Use a Secure Connection
You’re probably aware that all websites start with http://. But it’s important to change your settings to encrypt the websites you visit. Make sure they read “https” instead of “http” to ensure you’re using secure connection sites, especially if you’re logging in on a public Wi-Fi network. Other preferences you can change in your browser include limiting websites from tracking you and from accessing your location.
4. Use Complicated Passwords
First, make sure you aren’t using the same password for every website. Each email address should have a different password, as should any bank accounts or online bills you pay. Also make sure not to use the same security questions across the board. Second, use more complex passwords. Many websites now have certain requirements to make stronger passwords, but if they don’t, you should create one that is at least eight characters long, doesn’t use a common word or name, or a predictable pattern such as numbers at the end.
5. Don’t Click on Email Links
Whether you get an email to pay your monthly electric bill, or to buy the latest Dan Brown book on sale, do not access this through your email. Instead, go directly to the electric company’s website, or Amazon.com, to get to your bill and pay it. That way you can’t fall for a fake site that looks so much like the one you know. (Sam Schoenfeld – VNN) (Image: Flickr | Apreche)