Future Tense

What Slate Readers Think About Personal Cybersecurity

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Lock it down.

Markus Mainka/thinkstock.com

Over the past month we’ve published articles about cybersecurity self-defense as part of our ongoing project Futurography, which introduces readers to a new technological or scientific topic each month. We’ve published a lot of practical articles on the topic, but we’re also interested in what you have to say, so we’ve written up the results of our survey on the topic. Meanwhile, Futurography continues with our March course on the new space race.

Futurography readers offered a wide range of responses in response to our question about their relative levels of confidence in their personal cybersecurity. Many claimed that they were somewhere between “moderately” and “very” confident (“My stuff is probably better secured than most people’s stuff,” one claimed), but others were less sure of themselves. “I do a[n] inadequate job, but feel the alternatives are worse,” a reader wrote, and another described him or herself as merely “cautiously alert.” One went so far as to describe him or herself as “helpless,” writing that even trying to read the fine print on smartphone apps “just makes me feel more anxious.”

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Whatever their feelings, almost all agreed about the one cybersecurity technology we should all be employing: password managers. While others advocated complex, unique, or frequently changed passwords, most of our readers simply focused in on the value of this relatively accessible security strategy. “Perhaps the best reason is to keep track of your accounts on different apps and services so that you can shut down old stuff you don’t use and so on,” one typical respondent wrote.

That said, a few offered objections to commercial password management systems and proposed alternative solutions. Concerned that password managers “all send stuff over the net,” one such reader explained, “I do have one which does not use the net for anything, so I have to carry it around with me. It keeps my password list in a 128-bit encrypted text file on a USB drive. I only plug this into a PC I know is clean (which is increasingly hard to know.)” Another reader suggested that the old-fashioned method may be the best one, telling us, “I use paper and pen to keep track of passwords, why have PW info anywhere on line if you’re worried about having your PW compromised?”

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This approach squared with another reader’s suggestion that “less technology” may be key to our cybersecurity best practices. “Segmenting that technology into specific areas of our lives and keeping control of it should be the priority,” he or she wrote. Other popular answers on that front included setting up two-factor authentication and relying on apps such as Signal that feature end-to-end encryption. And at least one suggested good cybersecurity doesn’t necessarily begin at home, echoing Jamie Winterton’s warning that you should be very cautious about connecting to public Wi-Fi.

When it came to the cybersecurity threats that actually worry them, the majority of readers pointed to ransomware. Many others identified phishing—attempts to trick the unsuspecting into furnishing their passwords or other information—as a prominent concern. A few suggested that this wasn’t necessarily because they thought they would fall prey to some scheme, but because, as one put it, they feared “relatives or others tied to me” might. Similarly, some mentioned that they were troubled by the possibility big data leaks, especially of records from government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration.

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Not everyone agreed with those conclusions, and a few ranked some of those prominent answers among the most overrated cybersecurity threats. Others rolled their virtual eyes at topics such as car hacking, retail breaches, basic computer viruses. To that last one, a respondent wrote, “Those are just toys that some bored kid makes.” Despite that, many of our readers claimed that they do use anti-virus software. Those who said they didn’t mostly identified themselves as Mac users, though a few others seemed to agree with Michael Thornton’s suggestion that you just can’t rely on such programs these days.

One way or another, the majority of our readers seem to be cautious types. Many who wrote in proposed that it’s important to acknowledge all possible threats, however insignificant they may seem. As one put it, “[N]othing is overrated in cybersecurity.”

This article is part of the cybersecurity self-defense installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down.

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