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
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