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4 no-brainer online security measures we need to start practicing now

We're blissfully ignorant of how we put ourselves at risk online.

Photo credit: Clint Patterson on Unsplash
  • According to the 2019 Official Annual Cybercrime Report, businesses fall for ransomware attacks every 14 seconds.
  • Many people ignore standard security practices that significantly reduce their chances of being attacked, such as disabling their computer's microphone and camera.
  • Establishing better cyber security practices is a matter of unlearning bad habits, and creating better ones.

The sheer number of massive data breaches and known security vulnerabilities online today should be enough to scare us into better data safety practices. However, though these issues seem to consistently elicit gasps and condemnations by talking heads and private users, little else is done. It's not about turning office and personal computers into Fort Knox, really, it's about using common sense and exercising caution.


According to the 2019 Official Annual Cybercrime Report, businesses fall for ransomware attacks every 14 seconds. Cybercrime is also on the rise, with some estimates putting the cost of online crimes at roughly $6 trillion by 2021. In this increasingly risky landscape, it makes sense to invest heavily in antivirus, anti-malware, and overall protection tools. However, these applications can only take you so far.

At some point, the problem isn't that hackers are too smart for us, but that we, in a false sense of security, believe we can let our guard down, which leads us to ignore standard security practices that significantly reduce chances of our being attacked. Here are some no-brainer security steps that we constantly overlook but should start keeping in mind.

Browsing the web via VPN

While it may seem like an endless amusement park with everything you've ever wanted to find, the internet is a much darker than we'd like to imagine. Although it is undoubtedly a great tool and has significantly enhanced quality of life the world over, the internet also means our personal data is now exposed every time we browse the web or open an application online. Often, sites and bodies we see as the "safest" are often themselves invaders of our privacy such as internet service providers, governments, and giant tech companies.

Connecting to an unknown network can be dangerous — something nearly 92 percent of those who use public WiFi networks ignore. Undeniably, many have started to limit their activity online as their concerns about privacy (rightfully) grow. Yet, many people still happily browse the web without a care and continue to leave trails of data everywhere, creating noteworthy problems when their information is scanned and compromised.

According to Harold Li, Vice President at ExpressVPN: "In an era when we conduct the most crucial and sensitive parts of our lives online, a VPN is a critical tool for protecting both digital privacy and security. They increase your anonymity online, shield your online activity from monitoring by ISPs and governments, and defend your data from hackers on shared networks such as public Wi-Fi." Even so, most of us continue to neglect VPNs. In fact, according to VPN Mentor, only 5 percent of internet users in the U.S. have a VPN.

Protecting Google docs

As we become increasingly reliant on the cloud, one of the first things we've migrated is our ability to do work. McAfee's 2019 Cloud Adoption and Risk Report found that for the past six years running, the "file sharing and collaboration services" category — services such as Google Docs — has been the leading driver of cloud use in business, accounting for nearly 21 percent of services in use at the average company.

According to the study, today, some 83 percent of organizations store sensitive data in the cloud, and about 8 percent of all cloud-shared documents include sensitive information. Moreover, we're sharing these files more than we used to, with significant year-over-year rises in documents set for open access to "anyone with a link."

This is problematic for two reasons. On one hand, the ease with which we can share documents increases the likelihood that they will be intercepted. On the other, as user bases stratify around services they use, SaaS platforms gain access to sensitive corporate assets unbeknownst to even the IT team. This is what's known as "shadow IT."

In remarks to Techopedia, Uri Haramati, the CEO of SaaS management platform company Torii , noted that "Considering the rampant threat of cyberattacks, security risks are definitely something companies have to be wary of."

On the other hand, "The fact that they are trying out new tools, means that they want to be better at their work," according to Haramati. "Why should management dampen such a positive attitude? Instead, leaders should value their employees' drive to be better and find out how their existing processes can be improved upon."

Disabling your microphone and camera

Recently, video conferencing service Zoom was revealed to have major flaws that allow hackers to theoretically take over unsuspecting users' webcams with a single URL. This may seem like a less threatening incident than having data stolen, but it can be just as damaging. A malicious third party with unfettered access to your webcam can discern much about your personal habits and can potentially witness and record damaging or embarrassing situations. In the U.K., for instance, there have been recorded incidents of hackers capturing these moments and threatening to upload them to social media unless a ransom is paid.

The problem is similar with microphones, which can be used to track your communications even when your devices are "off." Most A.I.-based assistants today, for instance (such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home) are constantly listening, and companies have people on the other side listening to these recordings, as was discovered recently with Siri. Simply turning off your microphone manually can give you significant protection.

Using Encrypted Communications

It may sound straight out of a James Bond movie, but encryption is quickly becoming one of the most important technology fields in our digitized world. Even with a VPN and robust protection, it's still not impossible for someone to access our communications while they're in transit between us and the recipients. In fact, as our messaging applications expand in number and importance, governments, law enforcement and nefarious actors' interest in them is rising.

Many services do offer powerful encryption tools and features, but people often remain on the most popular chat apps because of convenience and familiarity. Facebook Messenger remains one of the most popular tools (despite belonging to a decidedly anti-privacy corporation), while Chinese apps like WeChat and Tencent's QQ Mobile are also main players despite the fact that they're both heavily monitored by the Chinese Government.

Facebook's Messenger, for instance, only offers optional end-to-end encryption (even though WhatsApp, which Facebook also owns, provides E2E by default). This doesn't even account for emails, which remain the most popular online communication method. Even when sending sensitive data, we're more than happy to send it via Gmail or Yahoo! and completely ignore the fact that there is little we can do once those emails leave our inboxes to protect the information we've shared.

Start small

Establishing better cyber security practices doesn't require a computer science degree and a military budget. What it needs is attention to detail, unlearning bad habits, and creating new ones. As the number of vectors available to hackers, scammers, data miners and governments continue to expand, it won't be big things that cause breaches, but rather something as small as leaving a webcam on, forgetting a password, or sending a compromising email without considering who may view it.

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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