No sniggering matter: The Ashley Madison hacking shows us why cyber insecurity is an ever growing feature of modern life

 

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The Independent Online

Rarely have the prurient of the world owed so much to so few. What is presumably a small group of “ethical” hackers has now dumped thousands of personal details of adulterers, and would-be adulterers, on to the web.

Now searchable, the database provides a rich seam for troublemakers, muckrakers and elements of the media to mine. A global epidemic of sniggering is upon us; but many families and relationships have been enveloped in pain and shame. There is, of course, nothing ethical about inflicting so much agony on people. The invasion of privacy is grievous, not least for gay people who have been outed in the process.

It is unlikely to be the last such exposure, and even those in happy relationships should not feel smug. The reality of modern life is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to conduct normal affairs (not of the Ashley Madison kind) without being online. As we move towards a cashless society, every purchase, every journey and every payment can be tracked and recorded – and, of course, potentially hacked from digital bank accounts.

Our tax returns are completed via the HMRC website, again a source of valuable data to crooks and scammers. Satellite navigation built into the IT systems of cars tracks our every movement, with the information stored on the motor manufacturers’ databases.

The websites we visit, the things we buy, restaurants we frequent, apps we download, papers we read and TV programmes we watch – all the information about what makes us who we are is now “out there”.

Most disturbing, for many, is the possibility of centralised NHS medical records being made public. It would be comforting to think that the security systems of the banks, the NHS and HMRC, for example, were attack-proof. We know – from the WikiLeaks episode, from the theft of data on US federal employees, from the raid on Sony and so on – that even the largest organisations and governments cannot make every system secure, and that is without reckoning on absent-minded DWP or HMRC officials leaving discs full of sensitive data on trains.

Sooner or later, something deeply personal to most of us will appear online; we will feel the same sense of shock and embarrassment as Ashley Madison’s clientele, and may suffer further personal and financial damage.

Still, we are not helpless. A few modest precautions might go a long way in protecting us from cyber fraud, for example. A surprisingly high proportion of us use simple, easily cracked passwords, and use the same password across multiple accounts. Providers of online banking do a certain amount to require more demanding and creative identity checks. But if a hacker finds one password, then they may well be able to use that to trick their way into other, more lucrative digital paths. Changing passwords, and a mandatory requirement on providers of web-based services to routinely renew them, would help.

There is also a wider risk associated with major cyber attacks on financial institutions. In the case of the banks, for example, a massive loss of funds would, in principle, have to be covered. But what if they could not make up the losses? Does the Government – that is, the taxpayer – then have to rescue them again?

For all its wonders, the web (at least in its mass-market form) is still young, and the methods and sophistication of the scammers still relatively under-developed. Ashley Madison and other high-profile cases show what may await us all: no sniggering matter.

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