Stories about corporate office databases or personal online accounts being “hacked” are often addressed in the news, which may leave many wondering what the fuss is all about.
Curtis Sharon, a professor at Cuyamaca College specializing in databases and network security, gave a straightforward definition.
“Hacking is basically getting into places where you are not supposed to be,” he said.
Hacking is not uncommon and has touched the hard drives of many.
“Many times (hacking) is quite accidental,” Sharon said. “You don’t know you are doing it. You don’t know you are doing something wrong.”
Accidental hacking can take place when people download programs such as LimeWire that break into a system to obtain free music downloads. It can even take place when people connect to one of their neighbors’ wireless Internet connections. No matter if it is accidental or intentional, hacking is illegal.
However, law enforcement is often unable to effectively monitor hacking activity and prosecute the correct people.
“The Internet is one of the few really unregulated zones left in the world,” Sharon said. “Terrible risks are involved there. But at the same time, look at the force it provides for spreading information.”
Society’s reliance on the Internet for storing and relaying information pertaining to various aspects of life does not help. However, some basic precautionary steps can be effective in keeping prying eyes at bay.
“Taking simple steps to protect your privacy and recognizing that privacy is a valuable commodity that, once it’s destroyed, is very difficult to regain,” Sharon said.
He shared a few tips about how Internet users can protect themselves from online hacking.
First, Sharon suggested the use of routers in combination with modems.
Many students rely on their connection to San Diego State’s wireless Internet, which is made incredibly safe. However, students who live in apartments should purchase a router, which acts as a police force that only permits certain people to gain access to the wireless connection.
“If somebody sitting out in the front street detects that you have a wireless access point, (he or she) can get into your network,” Sharon said.
Whatever activity the hacker engages in, or whatever information he or she accesses or posts online using the wireless Internet owner’s access point, is the owner’s legal responsibility. This can be prevented by creating a password for personal Wi-Fi access.
Sharon also suggested the use of stronger passwords.
To ensure password protection, he said create complex passwords that are changed often, though he said it can be “a pain in the neck.” He suggested computer users create passwords that are a minimum of eight characters, but 12 are better.
“Every letter, every character that goes into the password makes it that much harder to solve in the end,” Sharon said.
Most of the time, passwords can include combinations of lower and uppercase letters, special characters such as the pound key or percentage symbol and blank spots using the space bar.
He said avoid common words because of password phishing tactics, such as “dictionary attacks,” which literally entail the hacker opening a dictionary and trying words until finding the correct one.
Also, be sure not to use the same password for every single computer or online account. Switch them up.
Passwords should not be written down. After all, the goal is to make hacking tough, not easy. Sharon also said Internet users should log out of sites prior to closing the browser, turn off computers not being used and be cautious of what is posted online or said in person.
The latter is the most important rule of all, he said. It applies to anyone who openly shares personal information online, but more specifically for those using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. These accounts are frequent targets, often loaded with personal information.
“We allow complete strangers with absolutely no interest in our well-being to profoundly affect our lives,” Sharon said about social networking sites.
He advised users to think before sharing.
“Never write down (or type) anything you do not want someone to read,” he said.
Hackers can take advantage of this information by searching online databases to discover information not only sensitive, but also personally compromising.
Refrain from posting phone numbers, discussing private information on other friends’ walls and indicating specific locations via check-in features.
Deleting a piece of information from a site is an option, but still not enough.
“Once it is out there electronically, it never ever, ever goes away. It will never be gone,” Sharon said.