We talk to Miriam Wraight, Head of the Home Office’s Research Information and Communications Unit to get the low down on cyber security this festive season.
SR: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions for us. We’re trying to really hammer home the importance of cyber security, especially at this festive time of year.
I think the number one question on everyone’s mind is, how real actually is the threat of a cyber-attack on an individual? And what might these cyber-attacks look like?
MW: A large proportion of the public and small businesses can often underestimate the risk of cyber-crime, and this means that people aren’t adequately protecting themselves. Every year there are millions of incidences of cyber-crime – and this isn’t just to big business or celebrities, it really does impact people from all walks of life.
We’re all increasingly connected, and most people in the UK can relate to their mobile phone being one of the first things they look at in morning and last thing at night – so opportunities for cyber-attacks are increasing.
At this time of year we’re all out there bargain shopping, and there’s the added pressure of getting our gifts all sorted in a short space of time – so we become less vigilant.
In terms of what forms a cyber-attack can take, there’s everything from phishing and ransomware to identity and financial theft. The most common seems to be the ones in email format that aim to gather personal details from us, with a view to stealing our identity.
SR: What’s the first thing we should do then, from a security perspective, if we get a new laptop or tablet this Black Friday or Christmas?
MW: Everyone should absolutely be enjoying their new devices and all their connected features. We just need to be mindful of the small vulnerabilities that we all have. Cyber security doesn’t have to be complicated at all.
The first thing we recommend is to create a strong password, especially for your email account. Your email address tends to be the primary account you use for shopping, social media and countless other service providers, so it’s so important that this is very secure. If it’s not secure, hackers can gain access into all your personal accounts via this route. Also, always ensure you install the latest software and app updates to your device. You can set these to download automatically, but if not – we recommend you check regularly. The reason this is so important is because they contain vital security patches that protect your device.
Lastly, make sure you have a back-up for your photos, documents and anything else you might have saved, by backing them up to an external hard drive or a cloud-based storage system. This makes you far less vulnerable to ransomware – a cyber criminal will have less ground to hold you to ransom, as your information is safely backed-up elsewhere.
SR: What about when it’s us doing the online shopping this winter? Most of us would like to avoid the hectic queues and general stress of the shops – do you have any guidance on keeping online shoppers safe?
MW: As I said earlier, this time of year adds a lot of pressure to our purchasing habits. Really take the time to ensure you’re on a genuine site.
Be wary of those deals that seem too good to be true – this should be an indication to think twice before you commit to buying. Make sure you do a bit of research if you’re unsure.
We also strongly recommend that people take extra care when using public Wi-Fi. For example, don’t use public Wi-Fi to transfer sensitive information, such as card details. Often, hackers can set-up fake Wi-Fi hotspots, which might enable them to intercept sensitive information you are transferring online.
SR: Earlier you mentioned creating a secure password for your email account, but it’s not always easy to create secure passwords that we can easily remember, do you have any tips for us?
MW: The way to create a simple, secure password is to use three random words. You can add symbols and numbers if you like too. To make it easy to remember, make the words relevant to you, but ensure they don’t contain any personal information like your month of birth or your partner’s name.
SR: We talked about backing up data earlier, why is it so important to create copies of things like work documents and holiday photos?
Its always important to keep things like work documents and personal memories backed up, so you don’t risk losing them if you were to become a victim of a cyber breach. Recently, there has been an increase in ransomware, which can affect your external hard drive too. So, if you do use these for storage, make sure they aren’t always connected to your device. Keep your personal and professional information and data secure from hackers.