Internet Safety for the Casual User: Q & A with Nicholas Schwartz

Published on February 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

As expats, how can we not adore the Internet? We can stay in touch with our distant loved ones via an array of seemingly cost-free tools and platforms. The convenience offered by these services is tempting—it’s quicker if your browser saves your passwords, it’s handy to back up files online, it’s useful if social media sites know your home address—but what’s easier for you to access is easier for hackers to get to as well. It can be tough to balance the addictive joys of social media with the dangers that come with sharing your personal information online. I sat down with Nicholas Schwartz, an Information Security Technical Consultant at the Bank of New York Mellon, to get some tips on how to stay safe. Note that these suggestions are primarily for Windows users as viruses are generally not targeted at Apple computers.

SAN: How much personal information is a safe amount to put out there?

NS: It’s better to operate with the mentality that your information is already out there, since many people besides you can disclose data about you. For example, if you list your email address in a corporate presentation and your company uploads it to the Internet, your email is now out there for anyone to find.

SAN: So then how can we keep ourselves safe on sites like Facebook?

NS: On all social media sites, the most important things to watch out for are malicious links. They seem so straightforward but can send you to websites that can infect your machine with malware. This also goes for any links in emails, even those from trusted sources. If a link looks suspicious, take five seconds to right click on the link, select Copy Hyperlink, Copy Shortcut or Copy Link Location, and paste the result into Google. If there are no identical matches or if there is mention of it being related to spam or malware, do not click through.

SAN: For the casual internet user, what would your number one tip be?

NS: Download the Adblock Plus plugin for Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer. Even secure websites, such as The New York Times, lease areas of each page to advertising providers, who are in turn responsible for selecting the ads which are displayed. If an advertising provider is compromised, malware can be sent in an advertisement’s place and infect you on an otherwise secure website. By forbidding advertisements, Adblock Plus blocks a significant attack vector.

SAN: Do you have any suggestions specifically for expats?

NS: If you have ever made a scan of your passport or a copy of your signature and emailed it, remember that if anyone gets access to your email, they will be able to get ahold of that as well. So delete the message from your Sent folder. This is pertinent not only to expats but to any frequent travelers. Tempting as it is, it’s a bad idea to retain copies of important documents in any repository that can be accessed from the web (like Google Drive or Dropbox).

SAN: So if my email or social media accounts are hacked, what should I do?

NS: If any of your major accounts have been compromised, the first and most important thing to do is to secure your personal email account by changing the password from a computer other than one you normally use. The worst-case scenario is if someone has direct access to your machine via a Trojan Horse; it doesn’t matter how strong your security measures are if a virus is recording every key you press. If this has happened, you will need to bring your computer to an IT specialist as very few — if any — anti-virus products will detect or remove this type of malware. The hard drive will need to be completely wiped and the operating system reinstalled. It’s exhausting, to be sure, but that type of malware is too grave a danger to do anything short of that.

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