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Editorial: User diligence is best defense against Web dangers
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Andy Crozier, network administrator for the Hall County Management Information Systems, with the MIS team Friday, April 7, 2018 at the Hall County Emergency Services Complex on new laptops for the Sheriff's Department. - photo by Scott Rogers

Cyber attacks. Data breaches. Social media information peddled to the highest bidder. 

Remember when the best way to protect one’s personal privacy was simply closing the curtains?

It’s a complex world today, and as we all become more interconnected and linked to information at our fingertips, we find such data can flow both ways.

This week, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg found himself blinking in the bright lights at a Senate hearing to explain how his social media monolith had shared members’ personal info. It came after revelations a political data-mining firm had contracted with the Trump campaign to glean info from 87 million users. It’s not really a partisan issue; similar practices were previously used by President Barack Obama and others to target voters. 

Distressing as it may be, it comes as little shock. When you log onto Facebook or another site and see ads for products you might have searched for weeks ago, it reminds us there are no curtains on that window. The computer or cellphone screen we glare at all day is looking right back at us.

Meanwhile, the far-reaching investigation continues into how Russian trolls sent out phony political stories during the 2016 election and how hackers who broke into the Democratic Party’s emails and attempted to crack into election offices. 

Even more disturbing are frequent stories of financial data held by online retailers being compromised, with customers’ credit card and other vital information exposed. It’s open season for all manner of internet hoodlums.

And the trolls are getting bolder. Recently the city of Atlanta suffered a major cyberattack from ransomware that shut down the city’s network for days. In that case, hackers devised a virus that locked up computers in exchange for a $51,000 ransom. The shutdown affected such services as public records access, law enforcement logs and communication at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Other cities have been hit as well. Baltimore’s 911 emergency center recently was shut down for 17 hours, potentially putting lives at risk. 

Many who are infected by such are tempted to pay, which only encourages more of such piracy. And many times, paying the extortion price doesn’t guarantee the thugs will unlock the networks. There’s no such honor among criminals.

Atlanta’s hack was a wake-up call for all governments. Hall County and Gainesville technology directors and their staffs have amped up security efforts and worked to train employees on spotting such threats and not opening or downloading anything sinister. It’s a big task; Hall’s network includes some 1,500 users, all capable of being unwitting accomplices with an innocent click of a mouse.

Fortunately, there are some allies available to help. Hall County and Gainesville are part of the Georgia Chapter of the Government Management Information Sciences through the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, which can help troubleshoot potential problems. Among the training employees receive are tutorials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to identify and avoid Web threats. The Cabinet department, created following the 2001 terrorist attacks, is now focusing heavily on cyber security. DHS reports more than 4,000 ransomware attacks daily in the last two-plus years, four times the previous number.

Unfortunately, the skilled and unscrupulous code experts who devise such malware are often one step ahead of efforts to thwart them. This expensive and potentially dangerous game of cat and mouse has no clear end in sight.

What can we do as individual users? It starts with being a little less trusting of downloads, emails and links that can infect our own devices. On social media, check all security and privacy settings to restrict access to information. Only share credit card and other financial data with trusted sites that include proper security protocols. Online accounts that are not used regularly are best deactivated in case data becomes vulnerable.

The key lesson is, user beware. Facebook can only share information it is provided, and that’s the user’s choice. Though social media may seem irreplaceable to some, it is a purely voluntary activity, and those who don’t want to partake of its risks don’t have to sign up.

As for the other dangers, caution for any and all online activities is advised. Protecting one’s privacy used to be as simple as locks on doors and drawing the shades. Now it requires much more diligence from everyone to choke off the cybercrooks’ new source of illegal loot. 

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.