Protecting Activists from Hackers

Q&A: An insider talks about digital security dangers, and what you can do about them

Hacking, data breaches, and digital security issues are now in the news almost every day. These issues are nothing new to the staff of the Digital Security Helpline. The helpline offers free, 24/7 technical support and advice on digital security to activists, journalists, and human rights defenders around the world. It is a project of Access Now, an NGO that promotes human rights online. NY City Lens sat down with Kim Burton, security education coordinator at Access Now’s New York office.

Kim Burton, security education coordinator at Access Now, works on the digital security helpline.

Kim Burton, security education coordinator at Access Now, works on the digital security helpline.

What makes the kind of targeted digital threat that a human rights defender or an activist might experience different from the threats that ordinary users might face?

The goal is different. When you’re targeting the average individual often these campaigns are really large. They’ll be interested in getting a lot of cash. When someone’s trying to compromise a human rights defender or activist or journalist, it’s usually because they want that person’s information. They want that person’s contacts. They want to be able to intimidate that person so they stop doing the work that they’re doing.

What type of things might prompt someone to contact the helpline?

They could receive an unfriendly email that scares them, and so they’ll bring that email to us. With journalists it’ll be more about protecting information that they’re trying to move out of the country, or it can just be protecting their publishing while they’re online. Often when we get contacted it’s for people who have had their accounts actually hacked. Where the account is posting information that the owner did not post, or it’s completely defaced.

Can you describe the difference between the support that’s typically available for someone in a corporate or government environment with a digital security problem as compared to someone in a non-governmental organization working on human rights or activism?

I think one of the major things is just having someone to call. In a corporate environment they have either an IT group or a person or systems administrator. So you already know who to call. In NGOs [non-governmental organizations], often times, there isn’t an IT person at all. There’s not a systems administrator. The tech support is not available. And part of that is funding. Corporate environments are able to spend a lot more money on salaries, so they’re able to pay the tech people a lot more than they would get in the NGO space.

What can be the direct consequences to the people who are targeted by this kind of threat?

Unfortunately people can die. That’s one of the things that we have to be aware of every day on the helpline. People do get killed for the information that they have out there. The other consequences are: people’s lives can be ruined, people can be imprisoned, people can have to leave countries, their families can be hurt. The stakes are very high.

Can you define what phishing is?

It’s those emails that say something like “You’ve won a million dollars, click here to receive.” Or something that is a little bit more scary, like “This is your co-worker, I need the password to this account.” It can get more targeted. But everyone receives these — this isn’t unique to the people that we work with. It’s just that the people that we work with might have a higher chance of receiving a more targeted phishing campaign.

What are three easy things people can do to improve their own digital security?

Number one, always install software updates. Updates are often released to address security vulnerabilities; updating is your first line of defense.

Two, use unique, long, and strong passwords. If your password is leaked in one place, and you have used the same password somewhere else, that other account can be compromised as well. You can use a password manager — like LastPass or KeePassX — to create strong, unique password for each of your accounts. Password managers will remember passwords for you, storing your credentials in an encrypted database.

Three, use two-factor authentication when available. Instead of only using a password to protect your account, two-factor requires another “factor” to log in. Like a bank that needs your card and PIN to withdraw from an ATM, you’ll need your password and something else (like a SMS text, generated code, or fingerprint) to access your account. All of the major email providers provide multi-factor authentication, as do many other accounts, like Amazon, Twitter and Facebook; look for it in your security settings.

 

Editor’s note: the paragraph about password managers was revised after publication for greater clarity. 

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