There is no denying that 2016 is widely regarded as a “bad year”, culturally and politically. But what of the security world — how did 2016 stack up? And what can we learn from the leaks, breaches, and surveillance increases?
Leak, After Leak, After Leak
While website hacks and data leaks have been a mainstay of our online lives for a number of years, 2016 was the year that everyone was forced to pay attention. Among the numerous casualties were cloud storage provider Dropbox and professional social network LinkedIn.
Dropbox hack exposed 68 million accounts
, with only half of all passwords being securely encrypted. LinkedIn managed to surpass this by
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losing 117 million credentials
, or 73 percent of their userbase at the time. Despite this attack coming to light in May,
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Microsoft still acquired LinkedIn for $26.2 billion less than a month later. Continuing LinkedIn’s bad year, it looks as though their online learning site, Lynda, may have been compromised too. Spotify suffered a mysterious and still unexplained leak
in April, resulting in hundreds of accounts leaked on Pastebin. The phenomenally popular game
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Minecraft was next in line but this time it wasn’t from the company itself. Instead, Minecraft fansite Lifeboat was attacked exposing over 7 million accounts and the site’s poor security practices
SEVEN MILLION Minecraft Accounts Hacked
SEVEN MILLION Minecraft Accounts Hacked The accounts of more than 7 million members of Lifeboat were compromised earlier in the year, and the data has reportedly been sold to the highest bidders on the Dark Net.
To be fair to Dropbox and LinkedIn the main bulk of their data appears to have come from attacks that happened in 2012. In the intervening years the respective companies have largely improved their security efforts. However, this is of little comfort to the millions of users whose personal information ended up online.
They Weren’t The Only Ones
U.K. internet provider
TalkTalk was hacked by a 17-year-old, video sharing website Dailymotion lost 85.2 million usernames and email addresses, and San Francisco’s transport system was held ransom to the tune of 100 Bitcoins ($80,000).
Ashley Madison leak
was widely considered to be the worst adult website leak in history. The release of sexual preferences was particularly damaging as it was used as a tool for blackmail and reputation damage. Having found a useful way to exploit users, hackers attacked more adult websites, resulting in the
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These leaks in themselves are all fairly damaging if the attacker accesses the data inside the account. The problem is compounded as it became clear that many people still re-use login information across multiple sites. This culminated in look-like-hacks-but-weren’t of high profile sites like
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Is Your Gmail Account Among 42 Million Leaked Credentials?
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It Happens to Us All
In a twist of irony, Twitter CEO
Jack Dorsey’s Twitter account was hacked by the group OurMine. The group also managed to deface Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Twitter and Pinterest accounts. Not content, they targeted other tech CEOs, including Google’s Sundar Pichai, Uber’s Travis Kalanick, and Spotify’s Daniel Ek. After you’ve finished smirking, you can take satisfaction that these high-powered tech CEOs fall prey to the some of the same security mistakes as the rest of us.
The best advice is to
start using a password manager
. While offerings from LastPass and Dashlane are the most popular, there are
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plenty of open source alternatives
. Once you have secured your passwords, you can
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enable two-factor authentication
as an extra layer of security.
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Yahoo’s Year Went From Terrible to Worse
While we are on the subject of data leaks, Yahoo had an astonishingly bad year. After failing to turn the ailing internet company around, Marissa Mayer finally took the decision to sell. Having found a
prospective buyer in Verizon
, Yahoo then went on to damage its own chances of a sale by
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admitting that 500 million accounts were leaked
two years ago. Oh, and they had been
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Yahoo! We Lost Your Data! Two Years Ago... Web giant Yahoo has suffered an enormous data breach. The breach, which took place in 2014, resulted in the information of 500 million Yahoo users being offered for sale on the dark web.
allowing the NSA to have unfettered access to your account
Yahoo Has Been Spying on Your Emails for the NSA
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Because 500 million accounts and government spying weren’t shocking enough, Yahoo closed out the year
reporting that a further billion accounts had been leaked
. Go big or go home, right? If you are thinking now is the time to migrate away from Yahoo Mail,
Yahoo Reveals Yet Another Giant Security Breach
Yahoo Reveals Yet Another Giant Security Breach Another day, another Yahoo hack. This one dating back all the way to 2013. This particular security breach resulted in the user data of 1 billion Yahoo accounts being stolen.
there are secure alternatives like ProtonMail
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Held Hostage by Malware
Viruses and malware have been a major headache for computer users the world over ever since we began connecting to the internet. Luckily, companies are getting better at
catching and fixing security vulnerabilities
so that the impact of any attack is much lower. Never ones to be left out, hackers have turned their attention to the comparatively weaker mobile operating systems like Android.
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Two large exploits have been found on Android devices this year. Over the summer details emerged of a
vulnerability in Qualcomm chipsets
which are widely used in Android devices, known as Quadroot. The exploit uses one of four vulnerabilities to gain root access to your device. While security patches have been released, the timely distribution of system updates is poor at best, leaving many devices still susceptible.
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The second also aims to take root privilege of your device by installing malware,
, on your device. This is done either through a malicious link or rogue app found on third-party marketplaces. This exploit only affects older versions of Android pre-Marshmallow 6.0. Although that accounts for roughly 75 percent of all devices currently running Google’s OS.
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The Rise of Ransomware
The most problematic malware has without a doubt been
. Throughout the year the incidences of this incredibly vicious malware increased to previously unseen levels. Ransomware is a piece of software which will lock functionality on your device or even take your files and data hostage. Messages are shown on screen to prompt you into paying to unlock your machine and remove the software. Typically though, even if you do pay, the hackers will just make fraudulent charges on your card, and do nothing to remove the malware.
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Image Credit: Bacho via Shutterstock
The attackers are also getting smarter with their distribution tactics. A new variation of the
infamous Locky ransomware
doesn’t require you to agree to install any software. Instead, it
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an embedded file, infecting you with the pernicious malware. The San Francisco transport hack we mentioned earlier was a form of ransomware, allowing commuters to travel for free until the ransom was was paid. This is likely to be a trend
that will continue into 2017
, with hackers using ransomware to hold cities, transport, and other infrastructure hostage for financial gain.
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Ransomware's New Frontier: Here's What Will Be Targeted in 2017 Ransomware attacks are spreading, with centralized transport systems now likely to be targeted as much as your smartphone or PC. All the signs point towards these types of attacks becoming more common in future.
Your Privacy Was Further Eroded
It’s been no secret that we leave a lot of our personal data lying around in the digital world. Some of that comes from information we choose to post on social media, while some is
gathered in the background
without our input.
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The most well-known data miner is Facebook. The social media giant has many different ways to capture information about you. It is then put to use either
in their own products
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sold to third parties
. They are far from the only ones exposing your data all over the web though, as
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even fitness trackers are being used for less-than-virtuous reasons
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Our fitness trackers, wearable tech, and health apps generate a tremendous amount of useful data, that advertisers and
insurance companies would love to get their hands on
. In most countries around the world the privacy of medical and health information is closely protected. However, the tech market is outpacing regulation, so your supposedly private data
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isn’t necessarily going to stay that way
How Health Data from Your Apps Is Being Bought and Sold
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The Pokemon Go Debacle
Over the summer, the augmented reality game
, being downloaded more than 10 million times in the week following its release. However, a large debate raged in the first few days of release about the level of permissions the game required. When signing into the game on iOS you were forced to give the developers “full access” to your Google account, a privilege only really afforded to Google’s own apps. Fortunately, it was caused by a mistake in the way Niantic implemented the sign in mechanism. Pokemon Go became a surprise megahit
Image Credit: LaineN via Shutterstock
The debate at least showed that users are beginning to understand the implications of handing over their personal data. Our smartphones tend to be a major source of data leakage, but luckily both
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have ways to tweak your settings to protect your privacy. Windows 10 has suffered quite a lot of criticism for its heavy data collection. Happily, there are ways to
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minimize what you are sending back to Redmond
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The Rise of Big Brother
Digital surveillance isn’t a new concept —
China has been doing it for over a decade
. With the
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Snowden leaks in 2013
we learnt about an invisible network of intelligence agencies around the world who were tracking our every move. As public outrage grew, it seemed that there was a chance that governments would backtrack and minimize their surveillance tactics.
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This year we learnt that the opposite was to be true. Around the world, governments and intelligence agencies are doubling down on their surveillance, and in many cases attempting to legitimize their practices. This includes the now-infamous
Snoopers Charter in the U.K.
. The bill passed into law in November, forcing ISPs to keep logs of all activity on their network for up to a year. This information can then be shared between a bewildering array of government agencies for… reasons.
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Similar legislation is expected to legitimize the alarmingly wide-reaching surveillance practiced by the NSA. Unfortunately, public opposition to these privacy-destroying tactics is
starting to collapse in the name of “national security”
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social media has supported this narrative
by allowing extremists and terrorists a platform to spread their message while the
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companies play whack-a-mole
How Social Media Platforms Battle Extremists
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To their credit, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and YouTube will be working together to create a database of terrorism related content for easy removal. However,
the database may turn into yet another surveillance tool
. This would go nicely with Twitter’s potential censorship group
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the Trust & Safety Council
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Image Credit: enzozo via Shutterstock
The FBI is also developing a
known as Next Generation Identification (NGI). This system would be “the world’s largest and most efficient electronic repository of biometric and criminal history information.” This adds more strength to the argument that
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biometrics may not be the future
of identification after all. It isn’t just governments that are intent on spying on you, though.
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Private investigators and amateur sleuths
are developing methods to track individuals across the web.
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You may have missed it, but
America had an election this year
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political parties were finding novel ways of collecting information
on potential voters too. Worryingly, police departments have started
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using controversial software called Beware
. The aim is to assign you a “threat score” based on your social media accounts. All of this sounds quite
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Minority Report-esque which should make you wary of what you share on social media
Just How Dangerous Is It To Share Your Information On Facebook?
Just How Dangerous Is It To Share Your Information On Facebook?
Reasons to Be Cheerful
Looking back over such a tumultuous year can leave you with the impression that the world is collapsing around us, with our private data paraded in the open by governments and hackers.
However, there are some companies trying to improve the situation for all of us. This includes Mozilla, the developer of the web browser Firefox.
Mozilla’s Manifesto lists ten principles that are all about protecting the security and accessibility of the internet. To that end, they recently released Firefox Focus
— a privacy focused web browser for iOS.
Firefox Focus Blocks Ads and Trackers By Default
Firefox Focus Blocks Ads and Trackers By Default Firefox Focus blocks ads and trackers by default, ensuring you can browse the web without fear of your every action being analyzed. Which is unfortunate for us.
The technologies that provide the backbone to the internet are undergoing change for the better too.
Transport Layer Security (TLS) is gradually replacing Secure Socket Layer (SSL)
to create a more secure connection between you and the website. There is also a push towards
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100 percent HTTPS adoption. The security company Symantec is offering websites certificates for free along with paid add-on services. Then there’s Let’s Encrypt which also offers free certificates, operated by the public benefit corporation ISRG.
It’s not yet clear
what role Bitcoin will have in the future
, but the blockchain will
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make our world more secure
. There’s a chance that it may be able to make electronic voting a reality. The movement to use blockchain to
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keep content creators in control of their work is edging closer to the mainstream. It may even make traditional banking more secure. Keeping Control of Your Privacy
The Orwellian themes popping up in surveillance schemes around the world may be chilling. Fortunately, there are
plenty of organizations fighting on your behalf
to keep the internet from becoming a privacy blackhole.
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what some commentators say
, encryption is the key to ensuring your security. You can even
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enable end-to-end encryption in Facebook’s WhatsApp
messaging service. If you want to protect yourself from the overzealous eyes of your ISP, then you could even
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make the switch to a logless VPN
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Tighten Your Security for 2017
You may feel like you’ve had enough of hearing that
yet another of your accounts has been hacked. However, it’s important that you beat your Security Fatigue
if you want to stay safe. One of the best things you can do to protect your privacy is to
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change what you intentionally post on the internet
. There are
Improve Privacy & Security with 5 Easy New Year's Resolutions
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plenty of ways to protect your children too
, so that they can make the most of the online world.
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As we move into the new year it is a good idea to do an
annual security checkup
, to make yourself as secure as possible. Then take preventive action, like signing up to the website
Start the Year Off Right with a Personal Security Audit
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haveibeenpwned to get alerts if your accounts are ever compromised. How did you find 2016? Were you affected by the mountains of hacks? Or did you get struck by Ransomware? Let us know in the comments below and have a safe, secure 2017!
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