Computer hacks were the topic of tech news on the day after Senator Obama's historic election. On Wednesday, Newsweek reported that the Obama and McCain campaigns were the subject of computer hacks during the campaign. The Obama campaign reported a possible email phishing attack this past summer. They were ultimately told by federal authorities that both the Obama and McCain campaign computers had been compromised. Reports are circulating that the attacks came from a "foreign entity" and lifted significant amounts of data from both campaigns.
Also on Wednesday, malware creators took advantage of the tremendous interest in the election and began sending emails with "Obama" somewhere in the subject line. The most common subject lines promised video of a speech, additional election coverage, or new interviews. One security company alone reported that it had filtered more than 10 million emails in less than 6 hours on Wednesday morning. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of people sought to open them and were instead infecting their computers with malware.
These two events highlight the importance of email security. This is the first major election heavily conducted, financed, covered, and influenced on the web. It reflects the transition to technology for ever-increasing numbers of the population. And, it reflects our ready acceptance of the transition.
Too many people assume that their spam filter, anti-virus software, etc will protect them. Yet, any technology professional will tell you that firewalls and software alone are not enough to protect a computer from data theft or destruction. They'll also tell you that emails are the easiest means of attacking computers because people still act before they think. A huge percentage of hacks rely on "social engineering" - convincing a person to do something that works to the hacker's benefit.
Education is still a significant tool in the computer security arsenal. Users must learn to stop and ask themselves whether the email is likely to be what it seems. First the easy questions: How likely is it that some stranger will really send you millions of dollars? Is your US bank really going to send you any request from an email address that doesn't contain the company name? And, if your friend really did lose a wallet on a spur-of-the-moment vacation how likely is it that she'd email you for a credit card number instead of calling her husband, the consulate, or American Express for help?
Is it possible to go the next step and teach users a little technology? They should always check to see if the attachment they're about to open like a present on Christmas morning ends with ".exe" (a file that will execute some program). If it does, they should beware and seek tech support. Or can we teach them to look at the "properties" of the link they're about to click, see the web address ("URL") and recognize that the source is the wrong country? A quick look at the domain registry will make it pretty obvious that something that purports to come from around the corner has a two letter code that means it's really coming from a country around the the world.
With so much hacking going on, the problem is no longer just a technical one. More laws are creating responsibility to take reasonable care to protect other people's information and liability for failing to do so. It is important to remember that with these changes, the standard of care is expected to improve, and what was reasonable yesterday may be unreasonable today.