The Connected Nation Blog: Hacking Puts Spotlight on E-mail Safety

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hacking Puts Spotlight on E-mail Safety

By Heather Gate, Manager, Digital Inclusion Program Development, Connected Nation and Chris McGovern, Manager, Research Development, Connected Nation

Until a few weeks ago, most people had never heard of the online marketing firm Epsilon or gave much thought about how it’s connected to our lives.

Earlier this month, though, Epsilon found itself in an unenviable spotlight when hackers broke into its databases and stole millions of names and e-mail addresses belonging to customers of its corporate clients (the Better Business Bureau offered tips to protect your identity online and listed several of Epsilon’s client companies that may be affected here).

This breach, possibly the largest one in history, included customers of major U.S. companies ranging from national retail chains to numerous banks and credit card companies. Fears about hackers stealing sensitive information is a growing reason why many households still do not subscribe to broadband service. According to Connected Nation’s Residential Technology Assessments, about 4% of non-adopters in Connected Nation states/territories cite concerns about fraud or identity theft as a barrier to home broadband adoption, which equates to about 1 million adults.

To address this concern, the White House publicly released its National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) today. The NSTIC is an attempt to create an “Identity Ecosystem” through which individuals can validate their identities while conducting sensitive transactions like banking or viewing health records.

This voluntary process, if effective, can go a long way to alleviating individuals’ concerns about online privacy, and it can open the door for more applications being used by a variety of businesses. For example, the creation of a secure online presence can do away with a large stumbling block for e-health applications, namely the fear of sensitive health information getting into the wrong hands.

Of course, this initiative is just one step, and there are several easy steps everyone should take to keep their online identity secure:
  • You should never open e-mail attachments from sources that you don’t know, since they may contain viruses that can infect your computer.
  • If you get an e-mail with an unexpected attachment from someone you know, check with the person who supposedly sent the message to make sure it's legitimate, since hackers can create “spoof” addresses that will appear to come from someone you trust.
  • Avoid clicking on links in the body of an e-mail, especially “.exe” files.
  • If something is obviously spam, don’t even open it, simply delete it or send it directly to a “junk e-mail” folder.
  • Always log off when you are done on your computer.
  • Last but not least, change your passwords (plural, as in, don’t use the same password for every system) often, using strong passwords that aren’t words found in a dictionary and include a combination of letters (upper- and lower-case), numbers, and special characters.