The Common Sense Approach To Staying Secure Online

Quick question: if you were asked to briefly define the steps you should take to protect yourself online, how would you describe them? Making sure you have an active firewall? Ensuring that your anti-virus software is up to date? Protecting your password from being discovered and misused? Being careful of the sites you access and heeding all warnings re particular sites being unsafe?

All these steps are of course necessary in this respect but there are occasions where, however well you observe these precautions, it is your own momentary lapse in concentration and/or abandonment of common sense which leaves you most susceptible to Internet misuse. Common sense when it comes to Internet security is about a lot more than the precautions you take when you first set up your PC and how sensibly or otherwise you conduct yourself online.

The Most Common Mistake Relating to Internet Security

Dangers of Leaving PC Unattended
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Do you know who may find your signed in and unattended PC?

There is one particular mistake which millions of otherwise savvy Internet users make every single day to put their personal Internet security in jeopardy and it is to this potentially disastrous mistake which this page is largely devoted. When you step away from a computer upon which you are signed in to one or more Internet applications, without firstly locking it or signing out, you are effectively rendering all your high tech protection measures and sensible Internet usage procedures invalid. Depending upon where you are, to which applications you are signed in and the identity and integrity of those people around you, the potential exists for someone to enter and significantly influence your most private and personal domain(s). The damage which such a person can cause, in a matter of moments, could have repercussions far greater than anything which may occur offline. An unscrupulous individual could potentially do you more long term harm with two minutes' access to your unmanned PC than two hours' unrestricted access to your home.

Skeptical? Read on...

Business E-Mail Security

Business E-Mail Security
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Hypothetical Scenario 1 - Details

You are a 25 year old woman. You are good looking, highly intelligent, extremely well qualified and have a glittering career ahead of you. Getting to the very top in your chosen profession is all that matters in life and you don't care who you climb over to reach your goals. You are already a senior department head within the company and have half a foot on the next rung of the ladder.

You have just humiliated the popular office prankster, Likeable Larry, by reprimanding him like an errant schoolboy for a minor error in front of the entire team. He is hunched over his desk in a sulk, no one else quite knows where to look and you have to briefly leave your work station. It may be to speak to a colleague, it may be to fetch a cup of coffee. The reason is irrelevant - you will only be gone a couple of minutes. Why should you bother locking your computer system?

Likeable Larry not only thinks fast, he types even faster! Almost before you have reached your destination, an e-mail is winging its way to the company head, the ruthless and merciless, JJ Foultemper...

Hypothetical Scenario 1 - Consequences

"Dear Jelly Jowls,

For so long, I have treasured that special moment each morning when you lean across my desk in a lecherous attempt to stare as far as possible down my cleavage. The sweat from your brow dripping rhythmically and hypnotically on to my computer screen, your enormous stomach's suggestive slapping on my desk top as you recover from the exertions of riding up in the elevator, your huffing and puffing breath assailing my nostrils, sweet with the scent of the previous night's alcohol and garlic over-indulgencies. And oh - that leering grin that reveals your tobacco stained teeth in all their glory! My heart flutters at such romantic overtures...

However - no more!!! We both know I'm bigger and better than you and this company combined.

Yours in sarcastic and grateful resignation,

Ms Polly Prim"

Personal E-Mail Security

Personal E-Mail Security
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Hypothetical Scenario 2 - Details

You are Andy Average, a 44 year old married man, with two teenage children. One night, you return home early to find your thirteen year old son - Andy Junior - stretched out on the couch, smoking one of your cigars and sipping from a glass of your most expensive single malt. After the initial fracas dies down, you stop his allowance and ground him for a month.

The very next night, you are checking your personal e-mails when the family dog reminds you that you are late in taking him for his walk. Determined to resume immediately where you left off upon your return, you leave your PC signed on and unlocked.

You and your wife have good friends who live nearby, Mike Muscles and his wife, Melissa. Mike is a former Marine, who lives in the hope that one day Starfleet Command will commission him to wage a one man assault upon the mightiest warriors of the Klingon Empire. Melissa is a former lingerie model. While you are out with the dog, Andy Junior stumbles across your unprotected computer. He is tempted by a teenage desire for revenge on a disciplinarian parent and decides to play a very amusing, "Joke..."


Hypothetical Scenario 2 - Consequences

"My darling Melissa,

I can't keep my feelings to myself any longer. I love you so much that it hurts. I am telling you this in the hope that you feel the same and that we can start a new life together. We can go somewhere far away, where no one will ever find us.

Please tell me you feel the same about me and we can start to make our plans,

All my love, my darling


Later that same night...

You are comfortably seated again at your PC when you hear a loud, furious banging upon the front door. Andy Junior yells, "I'll get it!" then a moment later, from the hallway:

"Hey, Dad - Mr Muscles is here! He says he really needs to talk to you about something..."

Social Media Internet Security

Facebook Friends
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Hypothetical Scenario 3 - Details

Oliver Ordinary is by no means an Internet junkie. He spends half an hour or so at the shared family PC, two to three times a week, more often than not typing e-mails or social networking messages (badly!) with two fingers. Oliver thinks Internet security is about ensuring no one breaks in to his home and steals his PC!

One night, Oliver reluctantly surrenders usage of the PC to his daughter - Olivia - who has been waiting impatiently by his side. He doesn't bother to sign out of the social networking site he has been using, or even to close the tab/window. He merely slides off the chair to make way for his daughter.

Oliver is a good, loving father and it is not with any malicious intent that Olivia decides to liven up Dad's boring and mundane social networking experiences. She simply wants to inject a little excitement in to his life, to make him appear more interesting and cosmopolitan online - and, of course, to have a "Laugh," at poor Oliver's expense...

Hypothetical Scenario 3 - Consequences

Remember that Oliver only goes online a few times a week, so it is a few days later before he reads the questioning comments of his friends re his latest "Likes" and revised online interests, including, but not limited to:

  • Advanced needlepoint
  • The top rappers since the year 2000
  • Top fashion tips for teenage girls
  • Popular French fragrances
  • How to make your boyfriend more attentive

It is bad enough as it is for poor Oliver, with some of the jocular comments from his online friends making him cringe inwardly and outwardly. The only good news for Oliver is that, despite what will be his short term embarrassment, it could have been much, much worse!

Use your imagination if you dare: what could someone do with access to your social networking accounts, in terms of either registering interests or making status updates...???

Online Banking Security
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

While this page has so far examined a few potentially serious breaches of personal Internet security in a lighthearted fashion, it is not easy to find anything remotely or potentially amusing about a third party gaining access to your online banking details. Where this were to occur through your own negligence, financial ruin is a very real possibility. Banks who afford their customers the option of banking online have extensive systems in place to combat online hacking and fraud but these systems assume that users play their part by protecting their personal security details at all times.

E-mails aside, online banking details may well be the most common thing people access on the Internet while away from home or their normal workplace environment. You may have your laptop or other Internet enabled device with you, upon which you can check the details; but where this is not the case, even greater care than usual must be taken. The likelihood in such a scenario is that you will have to use what amounts to a shared computer. This could be in an airport departure lounge, a hotel lobby, or even an Internet cafe in the city which you happen to be visiting.

Where you have to access your online banking details in such circumstances, give careful thought in the first instance to where you do so. An airport lounge or reputable hotel are both likely to be fairly safe but beware back street, grubby Internet cafes. Ensure that you never select an option to "Remember my details on this PC" and that you sign out completely when you are finished. Gather your belongings together and check for a second time that you have actually signed out and not simply closed the window or tab on the PC.

Remember that it is not only in those initial few minutes' access to your bank accounts that someone can do significant damage. The information which they can obtain in relation to your account details can cause you horrific problems on a long term scale.