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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Why online privacy matters

Online privacy is the ability to interact online without suffering a jolt to personal privacy. Threats from enterprising hackers and cybercriminals are ubiquitous in today’s world. The internet is a double-edged sword; it makes our lives easier, but also leaves us more susceptible to invasion of privacy, loss of personal data and much more.

Many horror stories surrounding internet hacking have put online safety under the spotlight. There are instances galore of credit card numbers being sold online for as little as $1 apiece and personal identities being exchanged across internet chat rooms at a suitable price. To name a few glaring instances of date breaches, hackers have gained access to information on 25 million Uber riders in the United States and credit reporting agency Equifax lost 143 million customer files to the machinations of hackers. Data breaches have become so common that companies are estimated to lose $400 billion to hackers each year. Adding further to privacy violations, although not of the hacking kind, Cambridge Analytica last year harvested data from at least 87 million Facebook users and Google has been permitting app developers and others to access its vast user database without user consent.

Malware attacks are reaching epidemic proportions. Spyware is a common means of online theft used by hackers. It is an offline application that surreptitiously acquires data when a computer is online. Viruses, Trojans and spyware infiltrate into and damage computers, both offline and online. Web bugs are objects embedded into emails and web pages to keep a check on online behaviour. Phishing is a fraudulent attempt to steal sensitive user data such as credit card numbers, passwords and financial details via fraudulent emails. The hackers pose as legitimate entities and trick the victims into disclosing confidential information. The infamous ‘Nigerian prince’ scam is a case in point, whereby people are persuaded to wire so-called transaction fee amount on the false promise of inheriting millions in return.

In Pharming, the hackers maliciously redirect traffic from a legitimate website to another internet address by exploiting vulnerabilities on the DNS server and changing the files on an unsuspecting victim’s computer. Ransomware is the latest type of attack wherein hackers lock and hold data hostage for a ransom. To make matters worse, companies have jumped into the privacy violation bandwagon. Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, companies create behavioural profiles of people based on their online behaviour.

Wi-Fi in public places such as airports, hotels and coffee shops are an attractive resource for accessing the internet, especially when travelling. The issue with open Wi-Fi spots is the absence of encryption, unlike the wireless connections of home routers.

A virtual private network (VPN) disguises an individual’s IP addresses and hides online activity from snooping internet service providers. In other words, a VPN service creates an encrypted tunnel-like connection between a person and the website concerned. There are many VPN services that offer online privacy on unlimited devices such as laptops and mobile phones.

Browsers are complex pieces of software that provide access to the internet. In interacting with other computers, they expose information to other sites and create a unique device fingerprint for each device. However, the good news is that the browser settings can be configured to expose as little data as necessary.

Cookies are small textual strings stored by a website in a person’s browser. Unlike malware, cookies cannot install anything on a target computer. But they can still wreak havoc with personal privacy by collecting and transmitting tons of data on a person’s online activities for the benefit of advertising companies. The only way out of this situation is to either disable the cookies altogether or limit the cookies to ‘first party’ usage alone.

Passwords are the bedrock of security. An ideal Wi-Fi password should consist of at least 12 characters, combining upper-case letters, lower-case letters, special characters and numbers as only such strong passwords can be immune from ‘brute force attacks.’ The importance of updating passwords on a consistent basis cannot be over-stated.

Strong passwords may afford protection against a brute force attack, but may still succumb to mega attacks that target online password databases. A double encryption process would be handy in such an eventuality. A 2-tier process allows a person has to use a specially generated one-time password in addition to an existing password, thereby rendering the hacking process so much the more difficult.

Data backup, which is a process of duplicating data to allow for future retrieval, is a much-overlooked and yet crucial aspect of data protection. Cloud storage services are a huge leap over conventional means of data backup and storage. They allow data to be stored, edited and retrieved from a remote and secure cloud storage server. Today, many cloud-based storage services offer backup space at affordable rates.

As a thumb rule, every internet user should shed the ‘this won’t happen to me’ mindset and exercise caution and due diligence with regard to online behavior. Adherence to good internet practices such as secure browsers, VPNs and data encryption and backup would go a long way in ensuring online safety. Commitment to basic rules such as abstaining from websites with low security levels, confining personal financial transactions to websites that use ‘https’ instead of ‘http’, avoiding shopping on unreliable websites and making use of anti-malware software and firewalls would also contribute in making the internet experience safe and pleasurable.

One thought on “Why online privacy matters

  1. The internet is not a safe place these days and everyone should care about their data protection, I use Surfshark to encrypt my data flow. I use it every time I connect to public wi-fi, read about FakeWAP hacks to see how easy it is to trick someone into leaking their private information. There’s a drawback with using a VPN for public wi-fi because it can slow down an already slow network, but haven’t noticed any significant speed drop using Surfshark servers.

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