– (phone rings) Hello.
– Hello, I’m calling from American Express. Are you Mr. ***** ******?
– Yes, great that someone finally reacts to my reclamation.
– First I need to verify your identity. What’s your social security number?
– Excuse me but you are calling me on a number that you have in your register, so you can be pretty confident that you are talking to the right person. But I have no way of knowing that you really are from Amex. So YOU tell ME what my social security number is. I know you have it on file.
– (silence) Well, eh … we must identify our customers to be able to serve them by phone. It’s company policy.
– Yes, I know that. But I’m certainly NOT going to give out my number to a stranger who calls and asks for it. I really need some kind of identification from you first.
It went on like that for a while until I proposed a compromise. I told her the first part of my number and she told me the last digits. It all matched and we were able to proceed.
This post is not about American Express, it is about a severe and widespread problem that is visible in this case. The problem is these Social Security Numbers, SSNs, or National Identification Numbers which is a proper global term. They appear in most countries, in many forms and under many names. But they all have two things in common. They were designed to be unique and distinguish persons with the same name. And they are misused for identification.
The practice of using the SSN as proof of identity is really fundamentally flawed. They are used in the same way as a password, knowledge of the “secret” is supposed to prove who you are. The problem is just that the SSN isn’t designed to be secret. If you are a little bit Internet savvy, you know the basic rules for safe passwords. Think of your SSN as a password. It’s assigned once for your whole lifetime and you can’t change it. You are forced to use the same SSN on all services you use. It’s printed on various documents, depending on what country you live in. It’s recorded in numerous registers, and you don’t even know where all those registers are and who’s got access to them. Would you handle the password to your favorite net service this way? Hell, no! Still knowledge of this fundamentally flawed “password” may enable anyone to get credit, order goods, close accounts, etc. in someone else’s name. Scary!
But what can we do about it? Let’s refresh the memory with some practical advice about how to handle your SSN.
This will help a bit, but not cure the fundamental problem. Your SSN is still used and stored so widely that you may be the victim of identity theft even if you do all this.
The problem is really the misuse of SSNs as proof of identity. And the next question is obvious, what should we use instead? Yes, that’s right. There is no common, safe and reliable method for identifying a caller. Some companies have their own methods to improve security. They may require both your SSN and for example a customer number or invoice number. Better, but still not good as those additional numbers aren’t protected very well either. The banks have good systems with sheets of one-time passwords, or similar. These system have been developed with security in mind and are typically reliable enough. They are developed for on-line access but often work for identifying a caller as well.
Banks have good systems, but they are unique for each bank. We would really need national systems, or even better, a global system for reliable identification of persons both on-line and over the phone. More and more of our transactions cross borders and national systems do not help if you are dealing with someone overseas, like in this case. The problem is not technical, public key cryptography and digital signatures could be deployed to achieve this. But agreeing on a reliable global identification standard that won’t become a privacy threat would certainly be a significant political achievement.
So we probably have to live with this flaw for quite a long time. National solutions will no doubt become available in some countries. Estonia is usually quick to utilize new technology and this is no exception, An electronic ID is a good fundament even if reliable identification over the phone still would require some additional technology. But the rest of us just have to acknowledge the risk, keep our non-secret SSNs as secret as possible and hope for the best.
Image by DonkeyHotey @ Flickr.
The first day of September may go down in internet security history -- and not just because it's the day when F-Secure Labs announced that its blog, which was the first antivirus industry blog ever, has moved to a new home. It's also the day that Google's Chrome began blocking flash ads from immediately loading, with the goal of moving advertisers to develop their creative in HTML5. Google is joining Amazon, whose complete rejection of Flash ads also begins on September 1. "This is a very good move on Amazon’s part and hopefully other companies will follow suit sooner than later," F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan wrote in August when Amazon made its announcement. "Flash-based ads are now an all-too-common security risk. Everybody will be better off without them." Last month, Adobe issued its 12th update in 2015 for the software addressing security and stability concerns. An estimated 90 percent of rich media ads are delivered through Flash. Having the world's largest online retailer reject your ad format is a significant nudge away from the plugin. But it would be difficult to overstate the impact of Chrome actively encouraging developers to drop Flash. About 1 out of every 2 people, 51.74 percent, who access the internet through a desktop browser do it via Chrome, according to StatCounter. This makes it the world's most popular web interface by far. Facebook's Chief Security Officer has also recently called for the end of Flash and YouTube moved away from the format by default in January. “Newer technologies are available and becoming more popular anyway, so it would really be worth the effort to just speed up the adoption of newer, more secure technologies, and stop using Flash completely," F-Secure Senior Researcher Timo Hirvonen told our Business Insider blog. So what's keeping Flash alive? Massive adoption and advertisers. “Everyone in every agency’s creative department grew up using Adobe’s creative suite, so agencies still have deep benches of people who specialize in this,”Media Kitchen managing partner Josh Engroff told Digiday. “Moving away from it means new training and calibration.” And Flash does have some advantages over the format that seems fated to replace it. "HTML5 ads may be more beautiful, and are perceived to be more secure, but the files can be a lot larger than Flash," Business Insider's Laura O'Reilly wrote. In markets, stability can breed instability and it seems that our familiarity and reliance on Flash has resulted in unnecessary insecurity for our data. Has Flash hit its moment when its dominance rapidly evaporates? We'll soon see. Cheers, Sandra [Image by Sean MacEntee | Flickr]
Kaisu who is working for us is also studying tourism. Her paper on knowledge of and behavior related to information security amongst young travelers was released in May, and is very interesting reading. The world is getting smaller. We travel more and more, and now we can stay online even when travelling. Using IT-services in unknown environments does however introduce new security risks. Kaisu wanted to find out how aware young travelers are of those risks, and what they do to mitigate them. The study contains many interesting facts. Practically all, 95,7%, are carrying a smartphone when travelling. One third is carrying a laptop and one in four a tablet. The most commonly used apps and services are taking pictures, using social networks, communication apps and e-mail, which all are used by about 90% of the travelers. Surfing the web follows close behind at 72%. But I’m not going to repeat it all here. The full story is in the paper. What I find most interesting is however what the report doesn’t state. Everybody is carrying a smartphone and snapping pictures, using social media, surfing the web and communicating. Doesn’t sound too exotic, right? That’s what we do in our everyday life too, not just when travelling. The study does unfortunately not examine the participants’ behavior at home. But I dare to assume that it is quite similar. And I find that to be one of the most valuable findings. Traveling is no longer preventing us from using IT pretty much as we do in our everyday life. I remember when I was a kid long, long ago. This was even before invention of the cellphone. There used to be announcements on the radio in the summer: “Mr. and Mrs. Müller from Germany traveling by car in Lapland. Please contact your son Hans urgently.” Sounds really weird for us who have Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Skype installed on our smartphones. There was a time when travelling meant taking a break in your social life. Not anymore. Our social life is today to an increasing extent handled through electronic services. And those services goes with us when travelling, as Kaisu’s study shows. So you have access to the same messaging channels no matter where you are on this small planet. But they all require a data connection, and this is often the main challenge. There are basically two ways to get the data flowing when abroad. You can use data roaming through the cellphone’s ordinary data connection. But that is often too expensive to be feasible, so WiFi offers a good and cheap alternative. Hunting for free WiFi has probably taken the top place on the list of travelers’ concerns, leaving pickpockets and getting burnt in the sun behind. Another conclusion from Kaisu’s study is that travelers have overcome this obstacle, either with data roaming or WiFi. The high usage rates for common services is a clear indication of that. But how do they protect themselves when connecting to exotic networks? About 10% are using a VPN and about 20% say they avoid public WiFi. That leaves us with over 70% who are doing something else, or doing nothing. Some of them are using data roaming, but I’m afraid most of them just use whatever WiFi is available, either ignoring the risks or being totally unaware. That’s not too smart. Connecting to a malicious WiFi network can expose you to eavesdropping, malware attacks, phishing and a handful other nasty tricks. It’s amazing that only 10% of the respondents have found the simple and obvious solution, a VPN. It stands for Virtual Private Network and creates a protected “tunnel” for your data through the potentially harmful free networks. Sounds too nerdy? No, it’s really easy. Just check out Freedome. It’s the super-simple way to be among the smart 10%. Safe surfing, Micke PS. I recently let go of my old beloved Nokia Lumia. Why? Mainly because I couldn’t use Freedome on it, and I really want the freedom it gives me while abroad. Image by Moyan Brenn
Passwords are the keys to online accounts. A good password known only to account owners can ensure email, social media accounts, bank accounts, etc. stay accessible only to the person (or people) that need them. But a bad password will do little to prevent people from getting access to those accounts, and can expose you to serious security risks (such as identity theft). And sadly, many people continue to recycle easy to guess/crack passwords. A recent study conducted by researchers from Google attempted to nail down the most common pieces of advice and practices recommended by security researchers, and unsurprisingly, several of them had to do with passwords. And there were several gaps between what security experts recommend people do when creating passwords, and what actually happens. Here’s 3 expert tips to help you use passwords to keep your accounts safe and secure. Unique Passwords are Better than Strong Passwords One thing experts recommend doing is to choose a strong and unique password – advice many people hear but few actually follow. Chances are, if your password is on this computer science professor’s dress, it’s not keeping your accounts particularly secure. Many major online service providers automatically force you to choose a password that follows certain guidelines (such as length and character combinations), and even provide you feedback on the password’s strength. But security researchers such as F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan say that, while strong passwords are important, the value of choosing unique passwords is an equally important part of securing your account. Basically, using unique passwords means you shouldn’t recycle the same password for use with several different accounts, or even slight variations of the same word or phrase. Google likens that to having one key for all the doors in your house, as well as your car and office. Each service should get its own password. That way, one compromised account won’t give someone else the keys to everything you do online. A strong password will be long, use combinations of upper-case and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. The password should also be a term or phrase that is personal to you – and not a phrase or slogan familiar to the general public, or something people that know you could easily guess. But there are still many ways to compromise these passwords, as proven by The Great Politician Hack. So using unique passwords prevents criminals, spies, etc. from using one compromised password to access several different services. Sullivan says choosing strong and unique passwords for critical accounts – such as online banking, work related email or social media accounts, or cloud storage services containing personal documents – is a vital part of having good account security. Experts Use Password Managers for a Reason One study showed that the average Internet user has 26 different online accounts. Assuming you’re choosing unique passwords, and you fit the bill of an “average Internet user”, you’ll find yourself with a large number of passwords. You’ve now made your account so safe and secure that you can’t even use it! That’s why experts recommend using a password manager. Password managers can help people maintain strong account security by letting them choose strong and unique passwords for each account, and store them securely so that they’re centralized and accessible. Keeping 26 or more online accounts secure with strong and unique passwords known only to you is what password managers do to keep your data safe, which is why 73% of experts that took part in Google’s study use them, compared to just 24% of non-experts. Take Advantage of Additional Security Features Another great way to secure accounts is to activate two-factor authentication whenever it’s made available. Two-factor (or multi-factor) authentication essentially uses two different methods to verify the identity of a particular account holder. An example of this would be protecting your account with a password, but also having your phone number registered as a back-up, so any kind of password reset done on the account makes use of your phone to verify you are who you say you are. While the availability of this option may be limited, security experts recommend taking advantage of it whenever you can. You can find a list of some popular services that use two-factor authentication here, as well as some other great tips for using passwords to keep your online accounts secure. [Photo by geralt | Pixabay]