It’s difficult to imagine, but there was a time when hacking was simply the byproduct of bored teenagers looking for something to do. Nearly 50 years ago, the concept of hacking sprung to life within the halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT computer science students were looking for ways to improve and speed up software and hardware. They borrowed the term “hacking” from a group of model train enthusiasts who hacked electric train tracks and switches in 1969 to improve performance.
One of the earliest hacks was in 1971, when a group of teens discovered if you whistle at a certain high-pitched tone (2600 hertz), you could access AT&T’s long-distance switching system. They used this discovery to make some international phone calls – for the fun of it.
But, as technology began invading our lives, so too did increased hacking opportunities. The 1980s were like the Golden Age of hacking. The Internet wasn’t created yet, but computers could still talk to one another. Hackers would tell printers hundreds of miles away to spit out paper, and there was proof that this digital intrusion could get even worse. Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986, making it a crime to break into a computer system.
But hacking, as we know it, had only just begun.
Fast-forward to today, and it’s no longer bored teens hacking into systems. Lives, governments, and multibillion-dollar companies are reliant on computers. Hackers know this, and are constantly looking for ways to find a chink in the armor. Chinese hackers, for example, broke into Lockheed Martin and stole blueprints for a trillion-dollar F-35 fighter jet.
Hacking has gone way past making free phone calls.
The fight against hacking looks a lot like a seesaw battle. Just as we think we have a leg up on cybercrimes, criminals take a giant leap forward and pull ahead. Back and forth, up and down, for every step forward we take against hacking, these hackers take two steps.
That’s why it’s so important that you know how to protect yourself from potential cyber attacks. The best way to protect yourself is to know the dangers that are out there:
Hackers have access to some pretty sophisticated technology these days that allows them to run (as an example) 420 billion lowercase, eight-character password combinations in one minute. Do the math, and in just a few minutes, hackers can run through an astronomical amount of password combinations.
How can you protect yourself from this? Firstly, think beyond eight characters. If possible, aim for upwards of 20 characters, and ditch the idea of using real words or phrases. Shoot for completely nonsensical combinations instead. Your nonsensical password should include special characters (such as #, or &) as well as numbers and capitals.
Also, if you’re using one password for all of your accounts, stop! You should use unique passwords for every single account. Is this a nuisance? Perhaps, but it’s worth the effort. Luckily, you could simplify the process by using a password manager such as LastPass.
How much do you share on social media? Have you ever considered how that information might help hackers?
Many people, by now, know it’s not a good idea to share publicly on social media their plans for going away on vacation (including the exact dates). That’s because that’s the equivalent of telling potential thieves that your home will be vacant during the time you’re away (finding your address online isn’t all that difficult).
But hackers can use your seemingly innocuous information against you as well. It’s called social engineering. For example, do you publicly share – on any social accounts – where you went to high school? Is it easy to find your mother’s maiden name online (perhaps because she’s an associated family member on Facebook and is friends with her family members who have her maiden name)? Do you have any posts that talk about your first pet, or childhood best friend, or first car?
These are all the basis of security questions that websites have you answer before you can make changes to your account. If this information is out there, hackers can use it to pretend to be you, reset your passwords, and do some serious damage.
Protect yourself from social engineering by being vigilant on what you share online. You may also want to develop policies for handling sensitive requests (like password resets) over the phone.
One of the newest gateways for hackers to use these days is apps. Hackers are capable of breaking into an app, stripping it of the protection it’s provided by Apple and Android, and then making it infect parts of your phone. Since your phone carries essentially all of your important data, this could be disastrous.
Protect yourself by limiting the number of apps you download. If you don’t use an app for more than a month, remove it completely from your phone. Also, try to stick to apps developed by reputable people or companies.
Hacking doesn’t always have to involve backdoor entrances. Hackers could use far more blatant, and obvious approaches to do their work. For example, how difficult do you think it would be for a hacker to create a fake website that looked exactly like PayPal, Amazon, or – even easier – Google.com?
If you happen to unluckily come across one of these fake websites, all of the information you provide could be used to infect your computer or steal your information. This is particularly concerning for ecommerce sites, where financial transactions are performed.
How do you protect yourself? Firstly, be careful what information you choose to provide certain sites. This is, of course, not so easy when it comes to a site like PayPal or Amazon. However, when you are on an ecommerce site, look for the all-important https prefix of the web address. This https is accompanied by a padlock and demonstrates that your site is secure.
These days it’s easy to see the Internet as a basic right. However, it’s more important to see it as a privilege, and just like with any privilege, using the web comes with some responsibilities. If you want to enjoy the benefits of an online society, you have to work hard to protect your data and personal information. Hackers are always looking for ways to break in. Are you doing everything in your power to stop them?