National Policewoman warns about extent of net users’ digital footprint: 96% of personal data are on the ‘deep web’

deep-webNational Police Technology Inspection Unit head Silvia Barrera has warned about just how much of their lives users leave wide-open to the public on the internet.

Sra Barrera says Matt Damon’s popular character Jason Bourne – due back on the big screen on July 29 – could easily recover his memory just by searching for himself online.

“If, one day, we woke up and didn’t know who we were or anything about our own past, thanks to our ‘virtual footprints’ we would be able to find out everything about ourselves – our digital lives are now our real world,” Barrera warns.

“We are what we advertise about ourselves, and as a consequence, that’s how we sell ourselves – we’re gradually exposing more and more of ourselves; want to be more and more hip and cool on social networks, upload more posts and, at times, forget about our private selves.”

She says that even, for example, using an apparently-harmless sports App, a person does not know whom they are giving information to about how much they weigh, their pulse, blood pressure, medical information and how much running they do.

“The latest technology is there to make our lives easier, but also makes us careless,” Sra Barrera explains.

An average internet or mobile phone user gives ‘consent to publish’ to 192 applications and social networks – ‘192 data about us’, says the officer, which ‘sometimes is literally confidential information’.

“Perhaps in Facebook you only broadcast your happy moments and not necessarily critical information, but then you have LinkedIn, which is a personal information forum where you put real information about yourself.

“Then there are bank details we log with online trading sites or applications.

“You should bear in mind how many of these services are interlinked: if someone gains access, for example, to your Gmail account, they will also be gaining access to far more than just your emails; they will be able to get into all services and applications linked to it including Google Calendar, Drive, YouTube, Amazon and so on; they can find out where you’ve been, what hardware you use…”

She recalls that everyone who uses the internet leaves an IP address, connection data and even an email address behind them.

“We leave a great deal of information with service providers – and at the end of the day, all our information is in the hands of third parties, in the hands of companies you have no option but to trust because they are guardians of our internet security.”

During a recent presentation on internet users’ ‘virtual footprint’, Silvia Barrera showed an eye-opening amount of data about the fictitious character Jason Bourne – and then said this was only 4% of the information about him out there on the web.

“The remaining 96% is in the ‘deep web’, or ‘hidden’ internet which is not indexed by legitimate search engines, meaning that using certain ‘dark web’ search engines such as those on The Onion Route, you can find out even more about a person,” the policewoman explains.

All this information online offers a multitude of advantages, Barrera assures – but it also carries serious risks, since third parties can lay their hands on it and use it to malicious ends.

“Through these data, they can find out who we are, what our names our, where we live, what we post online and everything about our personal surroundings,” she cautions.

This makes it easier for malware – Trojans that infect a computer and allow hackers to enter and gain information via weak points in the network – to affect users.

Malware takes advantage of Achilles’ heels which all personal and business systems suffer from, such as insecure passwords which are easy to decipher.

‘Social engineering’, for example, involves directly attacking a company using employee information online, and the amount of data about internet users in the ‘deep web’ makes it easier for this practice to take place, Barrera reveals.

But she warns against unnecessary alarm.

“Although all these dangers do exist, there’s no need to panic – just to be aware that we’re gradually becoming more and more exposed,” she assures.

“Just using reasonable security measures is enough: keepyour applications and systems updated, never leave log-in pages open on a computer that is not yours, don’t post photos of your children where they might be susceptible to use by others, and surf the web as safely as possible.

“You need to remember that the virtual world is like the physical world: in real life, if someone we don’t know approaches us in the street, we get scared. If a stranger sends us a message online, we want to know who it is. We’re curious rather than scared. But why do we view the digital world differently from how we view the real world? Because it cannot be felt, it’s intangible – and therein lies the problem.”

She says online exposure problems are mainly due to five factors – users forgetting not to share information they would not want strangers to know about, given that they cannot be aware of exactly who is able to access it; that there is no such thing as a ‘secret’ exchange of chat messages, even in so-called ‘encrypted’ apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram, meaning that as soon as we post something on these, it is out of our control; anonymity on the internet does not exist; 100% online security does not exist either – there is no such thing as an infallible anti-virus programme, and the information users leave ‘out there’ is in the hands of legitimate service providers; and users are forgetting that if they find their data are compromised, they should not take matters into their own hands but contact security forces, institutions and network providers.

“The only safe computer is one which is switched off,” she stresses, adding that it is ‘not possible’ to escape from the internet.

“Digital footprints are here to stay, and you’ll gain nothing from deleting photos from social networks, uninstalling Apps, calling upon the ‘right to forget’ or signing off from a given online service. Our lives are out there on the net and all we can do about it is learn to live with it as practically, prudently and safely as possible.”

Published Think Spain 12 July 2016

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