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How To Give Away Your Personal Information

Written By: Erich Heintz

Identity Theft and Your Personal Information
——————————————–
Identity theft is apparently the in thing these days. By
media accounts, hackers and evildoers lurk everywhere trying
to steal your personal information. In the past few months,
one company after another is being forced to admit customer
data has been lost or stolen.

In many cases, they have then come forth repeatedly over the
next few weeks, or even months revising the estimated number
of impacted customers. To date, I dont think any have ever
lowered those numbers.

Identity Theft and Respected Companies
————————————–
Generally speaking, these arent fly-by-night organizations.
These are respected companies who weve come to trust. In
many instances, the loss wasnt even the work of a
malicious hacker or other mystical force beyond their
control; it was simple carelessness. The frequency of such
reports of identity theft is making it difficult for
consumers to feel confident in those with whom we do
business. Customers are outraged that companies are not
doing more to protect their information from the forces of
evil.

You and Your Personal Information
———————————
What about you? How are you at keeping you personal
information under wraps? Some of these high profile
incidents were the result of a trivial mistake that could
have happened to anyone, including you.

Lets consider two events that didnt make the front page of
C|Net or CNN.

The Keys To The Castle
———————-
I consult for a client who doesnt trust me. Its nothing
personal, they dont trust anyone. Whenever I visit this
site, I am forced to contact the client throughout the visit
to have them type a credential, or password, to grant access
to a server or router. Its really annoying.

I really respect this client.

They dont really know me; Im the consultant. Theyre
taking the proper steps when dealing with a consultant,
providing the absolute minimum amount of information
required. They would never give me unsupervised access to
the network, and certainly wouldnt consider giving me
passwords to their servers or routers. Not on purpose
anyway.

Then there was the day I was working alongside the client
and needed to reconfigure a router to complete a task. Its
a long walk to the clients office to get the password for
that particular router. Yes, this is a client who apparently
has a unique password for every piece of equipment they own.
Conveniently the client does keep a password protected file
on a USB key that contained the needed information. The
client was completely appropriate and even asked permission
before using my laptop to fetch the file. I consented, and
even made the gesture of turning away while he unlocked the
file and retrieved the required password.

Have you ever used Google Desktop Search? Its a very cool,
and aptly named, program that is a Google for your PC. It
will index your files and make them searchable through a
fast, flexible, and easy to use interface. Itll even cache
the contents of files so if you move it off your hard drive,
youll still be able to see the contents of what was once
there. Normally it does all this in the background when you
computer is sitting idle. It also does it anytime you open a
file.

Your Personal Information Is The Prize
————————————–
You guessed it. Logins, passwords, public and private IP
addresses. You name it, I had it. The client who would never
give me a single password had turned over all of them at
once.

What kind of wondrous data was now available? Personnel
records, salary data, trade secrets? Maybe, if this was a
corporate client. What about an academic, a University even?
Student records, financial aid forms, and grant information.
The possibilities were endless.

I promptly deleted the cache. The customer didnt want me to
have the information, nor did I.

Would You Hand Your Credit Card To A Stranger?
———————————————-
The previous example showed how simple it is to
inadvertently reveal a large amount of data. Its funny how
easily a person can dismiss this type of loss. After all,
its not your data, right?

So lets get a bit more personal.

Convenience And Computer Security Are Rarely Compatible
——————————————————-
I have a good trust relationship with my next client. She is
quite comfortable with me administering and securing the
corporate network. When it comes to her personal credit card
information however, well, not so much.

Pretty much every web browser available these days has quite
a few convenience features designed to make your day to day
net experience simpler. One of these convenience features
came into play in this example, specifically the Firefox
browsers auto-completion feature.

Not too long ago, I was tasked by this client to make
arrangements for transfer of an internet domain to their
ownership. Not a difficult task, she could have handled it
herself. She was quite a capable computer user; she just
didnt want to be bothered with the process.

I set aside 20 minutes to go through her domain registrars
step-by-step transfer wizard. I summoned the client to
explain the details of the transfer displayed on my laptop
screen. Facing the payment options screen the client asked
if she could proceed. I relinquished control of my laptop
and she entered the credit card information required to
complete the transaction.

Web Browsers Cache Your Personal Information
——————————————–
Most modern web browsers, for convenience, will cache
information entered into web forms. The intent is to be able
to recall this information if its requested by another
form. The following day, I was in the process of registering
another domain with the same registrar and was surprised,
for half a second, when the payment screen pre-populated
using the same information used the day before. In addition
to the credit card information I also had my clients
personal home address, and telephone number. This was quite
a bit of personal information the client never had any
intention of giving me.

So What’s Your Point?
———————
These two examples are very different but do share two
important attributes. First, data the client intended to
keep private was revealed to me. Second, the reason for the
compromise of the data was due to the victim working
with said data on a computer they neither owned nor were
familiar with. Under different circumstances, the end
results could have been quite devastating.

Conclusion
———-
When using a computer system you do not own, perhaps at a
kiosk, or Internet Caf, be aware that the computer itself
is going to remember a lot of what youve done as part of
basic functionality. Additionally, most entities that are
going to provide you with access to a computer, including
your employer, probably have systems in place that could
collect additional data you dont desire to share. Even
WiFi hotspots that allow you to use your own notebook or PDA
to surf the web while sipping coffee can be a potential
information collector.
The moral of the story is, when dealing with computer
systems that arent your own, never handle data or documents
that you wouldnt want left behind unprotected. In all odds,
once you walk away from that computer, youve done just
that.

About the Author

Erich currently specializes in providing network and security
solutions for small to medium businesses that frequently have
to resolve the conflict of need versus budget.
Erich is a
staff writer for www.defendingthenet.com and several other
e-zines.

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