Protecting Your Identity and Your Network

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Recently, while a colleague was visiting a top university, he experienced some difficulty getting on the network there. He approached a student in the library and asked for help getting registered for DHCP or wireless access. Rather than point him to a help desk or IT assistant, the student wrote down his own username and password and handed it over, saying, ''Here. Just use mine. It's easier.''

A study conducted earlier this year in Great Britain showed that at least 70 percent of the people surveyed would give out their password for a small bribe. In this particular case, researchers offered a chocolate bar in exchange for the person's password.

I don't know which is more disconcerting... someone who is presumably really smart but sees nothing wrong with giving a total stranger access to their network account, or that as many as 70 in 100 average blokes would volunteer their passwords to a stranger on the street in exchange for sweets.

Now, there are some issues with the survey. First, it's not clear that the survey population was statistically random. The survey was conducted at Liverpool St. station in London during an Infosecurity Conference. Second, researchers had no way to verify they were given valid passwords, since a person could tell them just about anything in order to receive a chocolate bar. I've been known to make up answers to surveys in order to enjoy the benefits of participation.

I've also been known to make up the demographic information required to use some Web sites. I don't see the need for the New York Times to know everything about me, just so I can use their ''free'' online service. I make it a practice to never provide accurate data to these types of personal questions. It's not so much because I think they will steal my identity (something I do think about quite a bit), and not because I'm particularly paranoid (although I am about things like this).

I do it because I believe it is none of their business.

I suspect they are only interested in this data in order to sell it to other vendors. Interestingly enough in the case of the New York Times, they explicitly tell you they will not share your email address with others, then turn around and offer you the glorious opportunity to have 'special offers' from NYTimes.com Premium Partners delivered directly to your inbox. ''Insider updates on sales and promotions sent regularly by the NYTimes on behalf of select advertisers.''

Oh, okay. Here, allow me to spam myself.

Now, it may appear that the two preceding topics have nothing much in common. The fact is, though, that we do a lot of damage to ourselves. We register for Web sites and then tell them to send us all the info they ever wanted to send. We choose passwords that are easy to remember... and easy to guess. And many times we reuse passwords between accounts.

This all makes the identity thief's job that much easier.

In a more secure world, we'd use fictionalized personal data in order to prevent aggregate attacks.

In an aggregate attack, I collect bits and pieces of information about you over a period time. I initially may see a piece of personal mail lying on your desk with your home address on it. I use that to do a reverse look-up of your phone number. I can call the phone/electric/gas/water companies and tell them I'd like to start automatically paying my bills from my checking account. If you've already got that in place, I can say, ''Oh, that's right my ''husband'' took care of that last year. I forgot. But I need to make sure you're using the right account because we recently switched banks. Is that the Mount Washington Savings Bank account?''

Nine times out of 10, this conversation -- with a few variations -- will give me your checking account information.

I also can use online search engines to find any references to you on the Web. This will provide me with good clues as to what your passwords might be, and may even give me your mother's maiden name. If not, I can always stop by your office and engage you in a little chitchat about your family. I'm pretty sure you'll tell me enough that I can figure it out if you don't tell me directly.

This simply shows how easy it is to steal someone's identity. I'm not saying everyone who makes small talk with you is out to do you wrong. But I am trying to show how easily we can be targeted and victimized by someone intent on stealing an identity.

It's equally simple to protect ourselves.

Some people create an online identity to use whenever a site requires personally identifying information. (Obviously, in banking and bill paying, or online commerce, it's necessary to be able to trace it back to you.) This identity can be added to your address book so the same data is always available. A throw-away email address will protect you from the massive amounts of spam that are associated with so many online sites.

I realize this may seem obsessively paranoid, but take from it whatever means you're comfortable employing. Be aware of attempts by strangers or casual acquaintances to solicit information. And remember, never, ever give your username and password to anyone... even if they offer you a chocolate bar.

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