Last year, a 16-year-old Mexican schoolboy received an unsolicited text message making crude sexual taunts. The text attempted to lure him into clicking on a link at the bottom of the message. Had he clicked on the link, his smartphone would have been secretly compromised, allowing those targeting him to monitor everything he did, steal login details, upload his contacts list and even spy on him through his phones own microphone and camera.
Whoever sent the message was using an incredibly sophisticated piece of spyware created by an Israeli company called NSO Group, which says it only sells its tools to governments and law enforcement agencies around the world. It is designed to track and monitor terrorists and other high-profile criminals.
The researchers say they have no conclusive evidence attributing these messages to specific government agencies in Mexico. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that one or more of NSOs government customers in Mexico are the likely operators.
Many people on this side of the Atlantic reading this report may be shocked to hear of a government using spying tools to hack the smartphones belonging to activists and journalists. At the same time, most people will likely shrug their shoulders and say: Sure why would anyone want to spy on me, Ive got nothing to hide?
But this is not about having something to hide, it is about privacy. There are many things we all do everyday which we dont want most people knowing about: How often did you go to the toilet today? Did you have sex today? Did you look up something online you wouldnt tell your family or friends about?
We are all entitled to a private life, and that goes for our digital lives as well as our offline lives. And so, we should all be concerned about the use of hyper-sophisticated tools like those from the NSO Group being used against a 16-year-old boy.
The simple fact of the matter is that is you have enough resources, then you can pretty much hack into anything as long as it is connected to the internet. The problem for you and me is the cost of compromising our lives is dropping precipitously and the barrier which criminals have to hurdle to find out the most intimate details of our lives is getting lower and lower.
With such powerful tools available, the question arises, is there anything I can do to protect myself? The short answer is not really. If a committed adversary really wants to hack into your smartphone, then they will likely be able to succeed.
However, that doesnt mean you should just give up completely and surrender your digital life to anyone who wants to to take a look.
Here are some basic ways to harden your online security to make what you do more private:
Stop telling them everything:Every online service that doesnt charge you to use it (Google, Facebook, Twitter) is using your data as payment. When you sign up they require a minimum level of information, but ask for a whole lot more. If you dont want Facebook knowing when your birthday is, then dont tell it. If you dont want Google to know what your favorite pet it, dont tell it. Oversharing of information is rife today on social media, and while we may blame Facebook and Snapchat, the real culprit is ourselves. If you dont want anyone to know about it, just dont share it.
Use the Tor browser:Tor, short for The Onion Router, is a modified version of the Firefox browser which anonymizes your identity by routing your IP address through multiple nodes until no one knows where the traffic is coming from or going to. Often associated with the dark web, it is not just a tool for criminals, but one that can be used by anyone who values their privacy.
Dont eat the cookies:Third-party cookies are the little bits of code websites use to track your movements online. They are the reason why Facebook will show you adverts for the nappies you were just looking at on Amazon. Now through every major browser offers the ability to turn off tracking cookies. It wont stop the more determined companies tracking you, but it does shut down the most common vector used by advertisers to build usage profiles.
Patch, patch, patch:Keep your software up to date. One of the easiest ways for any hacker to compromise your system is to use vulnerabilities in older versions of software. So whether its iOS, Android or Windows, always make sure you have installed the latest version available to you.
Free Wi-Fi may not be your friend:We all love connecting to free Wi-Fi, particularly when were travelling. But this is one of the easiest methods for hackers to compromise a lot of peoples data in a very short space of time. Make sure the network you are connecting to is safe, particularly in locations like airports and train stations.
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Is there anything we can do to stop someone spying on us? - Newstalk 106-108 fm
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