Insights: Article

Everyday Steps Towards Online Safety with StopThinkConnect

By Anders Erickson

October 05, 2016

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for age 16 through 24.1  In the United States, there are on average 6,405 injuries and 90 fatalities every day from motor vehicle accidents.2 The act of driving a car carries its own inherent risk. Despite these risks, most of us continue to drive each and every day. 

As a society and as individuals, we take steps to incorporate safety into our daily driving activities.  Specifically, there are three things that help keep us safe when we drive: (1) traffic safety laws, (2) car safety features, and (3) safe driving habits.  We utilize these to incorporate safety into our daily driving experience.  We make safety a key factor every time we get into the car. 

Just as we do when driving, we need to consider our safety first when participating in online activities.  When we go online, there are three things that can keep us safe (1) cyber safety laws, (2) cyber safety features, and (3) safe cyber habits.  Let’s explore each of these and how well they do or do not keep us safe and what, if anything, we can do to make safety a key factor every time we get online.

Cyber Safety Laws
Governments recognize the dangers of cyber space.  They acknowledge that online identify theft, espionage, fraud, and predators all pose a danger to the safety and stability of our society.  Accordingly, many government bodies have begun establishing laws and regulations to protect online entities and users.  The United States federal and state governments have enacted laws related to cybersecurity.  The following are a few of the most significant federal laws related to cyber safety:

  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)
  • Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)
  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)

These three laws require healthcare organizations, financial institutions and federal agencies to protect their systems and information.  However, these regulations do not address a number of industries that have a significant impact on the processing and communication of data, including software companies and internet service providers.  It should also be pointed out that breaches continue to occur despite these laws, as evidenced by the recent breaches at Anthem and the Office of Management & Budget (OMB).

Cyber Safety Features
Companies that provide software and online services recognize that users will only use their products if they are seen as safe and secure.  Accordingly, it is in the best interest of these companies to incorporate safety into their products.  Just like automobiles, yesterday’s cutting-edge, optional safety features become today’s standard features.  Examples of common safety features employed in today’s products include the following:

  • Enforcing password complexity requirements (e.g., minimum password length and use of special characters)
  • Predefined, personal questions to facilitate password resets and first-time logins
  • Masking sensitive information (e.g., displaying social security numbers as XXX-XX-1234)
  • Automatically logging off a user or ending an online session after a period of inactivity

Users should understand the safety features of the software and online services they use and look for those products and services that offer more robust security.  User should not override or try to circumvent security features. 

Just as automobile manufactures conduct safety recalls, most software vendors periodically update their products to address any newly-discovered security flaws.  Users should register purchased software with the vendor in order to receive software security updates.  Software updates provided by vendors should not be ignored or postponed.

Safe Cyber Habits
Like driving a car, safely navigating cyber space requires the development of safe habits.  Like any habit, these take time to develop and must be performed consistently and continually.  Some examples of safe online habits include the following:

  • Be skeptical of all links and attachments – No matter where you encounter one of these, whether in an email or on a website, consider the source and its contents.  Why was this email sent to me?  Where will this link take me?  Always error on the side of caution and reach out to the sender before opening their email or deleting if you don’t know the sender.
  • Guard personal information – Be careful what personal information you choose to share online.  Do you really know who can view this information?  Are you confident that this online service will protect my information? 
  • Manage your passwords – Foster good habits for these words and phrases that protect your online information.  How often do you change your passwords?  Are they easy to guess?  With whom do you share your password? If you’re not already, consider using password management application such as “Password Safe”, “Universal Password Manager”, or “KeePass”. They are free and very helpful in managing passwords.
  • Delete accounts for old, unused websites – In the past decade, most of us have created hundreds of accounts for online services.  Remember that Yahoo account you setup seven years ago but haven’t logged into for years?  Each of these dormant accounts represents a potential security risk.  Most users utilize one of only a few “standard” passwords across all the account we setup.  If a hacker got the password you used on one website, they potentially could use that same password to access your other accounts.  If you no longer need an online account, consider going through the process of having the vendor remove the account.

These are just a few of the habits that can be developed to increase the safety of your online experiences.

Experience and repetition are the keys to developing any habit.  A safe driver is patient and cautious.  Online safety requires the same: experience, repetition, patience, and caution.  As a society and as individuals, we need to deepen our commitment to online safety and security.  We need to develop the laws, safety features, and habits that will protect us.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[2] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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