published Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Jenkins: Threats to privacy, safety mounting

by Donnie Jenkins

At least once a year I feel the need to write a column reminding us all to be constantly aware of privacy, especially security issues online and elsewhere. Companies are becoming fanatical about collecting every possible bit of information on consumers, and the social-networking phenomenon has made this much easier. To understand how important this is, let me use a literary example:

In the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the wily detective explained over and over that his key skill was observation of obvious facts, not some mystical ability. He would collect information, use inductive reasoning to create a theory and then investigate and test it to see if it was true.

This is much the way that anyone interested in gathering information today could do. For example, Facebook provides an abundance of data for an observant person.

There have been reports of homes being burglarized based on status updates on Facebook that informed everyone the user would be on vacation at a particular time. For whatever reason, it seems that many people never think of the public nature of their posts on social networks. It is true that Facebook is usually based on true relationships with trusted friends, but all too often scammers weasel their way onto a person’s Friends list with some trick or con.

Another strategy similar to Sherlock Holmes’ approach would be to study a person’s Status Updates, pictures they post and so on to get an idea of how aware they are of security and privacy issues. Most people who would do us harm follow the path of least resistance and look for people who make it easy to learn how to steal or otherwise do harm to them. It is unfortunate that we have to even be so wary, but it is what it is.

It would be unwise to think that only the online services harbor security threats. Now that cell phones have become so popular they are being targeted for data theft, especially credit card and other sensitive information. Cell-phone apps are great, but they are becoming a possible source of malware, spyware and other harmful content.

The sheer number of cell-phone applications on the iPhone and on Android phones makes it impossible to ever really know just how prevalent the threat is. The good news is that the same rules apply just as on the computer. Study, be aware, be careful, and always have security in mind when you download any app.

Finally, an older piece of technology is still a major source of data theft. Crafty scammers using a telephone can still do a tremendous amount of harm to an unsuspecting target. They often prey on senior citizens and very young people as they view them as easy and trusting targets.

Kevin Mitnick is probably the best-known computer hacker ever prosecuted and incarcerated. He has said many times that his greatest tool for theft of data was the telephone and a naïve person on the other end of the call. He called this “social engineering” and stated that getting company passwords and other sensitive data was as simple as establishing trust over the phone.

So there is my annual rant on security and privacy. I can now go about my business feeling that the world is safer and ... now, where did I put my credit card?

Email Donnie Jenkins at

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