Socially Speaking: Who is staring back at you?

South Africa is rated with the third-highest percentage of targeted phishing, hacking and identity theft in the world. 73% of all South Africans that have access to internet use Facebook accounts, whereof a further 61% of those spend two or more hours per day on other social media. “Sharing” is caring. Until it isn’t. Are you sharing more than you should?

We have electrified fences, alarms, movement detectors and constant security patrol in order to protect our homes from criminals. Yet we share our home addresses, photos, and personal details on the web for the whole world to see. We teach our children not to talk to strangers, yet we ‘befriend’ countless individuals on Facebook we have never met before. Living in this technological era we might as well leave the front door open and invite criminals in for tea and scones if the same kind of frenzied paranoia we lend to our homes don’t extend to our online life. Just because you cannot see the hijacker pointing a gun at you on the web, doesn’t mean he is not still there hiding in the bushes...

In 2011 a man named Thabo Bester sent messages to women via Facebook; posing as an international modelling agency scout. After chatting with the women online, he arranged meetings with them where he did anything but further their careers; he raped, robbed and stabbed them to death. Even though the example of Bester is an illustration of the worst-case scenario the net has to offer, it ignites the question of how aware are we of what is happening around us in the online world? The video that went viral on YouTube in 2012, “Amazing mind reader reveals his ‘gift’”, shows “Dave” ‘reading’ a series of random people. With his ‘gift’ he is able to know that one girl has a butterfly tattoo on her lower back, another has four romantic partners, he is even able to provide one man’s bank account number and his account balance. How does he know all this? Sitting behind a curtain a group of people working on computers are ‘researching’ the person via their social media accounts and other online histories. As the video ends, the words “Your entire life is online” flashes across the screen. Think about it, how much of you lies published for anyone to find on the net?

South Africa is rated as the country with the third highest percentage of targeted phishing, following the US and the UK. Recently, in April this year, the Nasdaq Symantec Corporation internet security threat report indicated a further 42% increase in targeted attacks. About 17.4% of South Africans have access to the internet, based on a study from 2012, which is a relatively small amount with the mass majority still unconnected. Yet for a developing country with a vast minority on the net, South Africa’s statistics soar above the world average for phishing, identity theft and malicious malware hosting.

Where have we gone wrong? Are we maybe just a ‘too nice a nation’ in trusting the web to protect us, or are we just plain naive? Microsoft Security Advisor Dr Khomotso Kganyago, points out that sharing information has been part of culture since the dawn of time, “it is a pattern, a culture, a way of life you cannot change”. However, with the dawn of internet banking, online dating, Facebook and any other communication form the web has to offer, this culture of sharing has become a condition to be allowed to take part in the online world. “This information giving out is enforced by a culture of systems. No information? No service,” Kganyago explains.

Dr Kganyago further points out that the danger of social networks such as Facebook is that “It is a place for friends. ‘I should thus be able to share my information’”. In a perfect world, this would be true; however, knowledge is power and with great power comes great opportunity.

With the internet, social, private and public lives become intertwined. When signing up for South Africa’s largest online dating website, Datingbuzz, you are required to share information ranging from your age, race, racial preferences for a partner and even your income in order to ‘find your perfect partner’. In an online dating environment, it can be accepted as to why these chunks of rather personal information are required.

What many people don’t know, is that that information has the potential to be unleashed in a public domain where users are able to “share” you on Twitter or Facebook. Suddenly you are not in a sphere where you have any control over who is looking at your dating profile; you might as well be featured in an advertisement titled “Hackers, phishers and stalkers, click here”.

On this note of “advertising”, it is common knowledge that Facebook practises in ‘advertisement stalking’, where adverts are personalised based on a user’s posts, websites visited and what is searched via search engines. “Sharing” has thus evolutionised to the point where anything you click on, becomes a published piece of history about you. Even though Facebook states that it doesn’t sell this information to advertisers, the main issue still remains that your every move, post and click is monitored – oh yes, Big Brother is watching you…

In an interview for South by Southwest, activist Al Gore describes this eerie culture of not just sharing information but also of information being looked at , as “Something’s [that is] going on and you don’t know what it is, so you have to be on your guard. That’s the same as the digital world with this stalker economy.”

Not everything on the net is out to get you though– is an activist website that lobbies to “reclaim information and communication technologies (ICT) and to end violence against women (VAW)” according to their mission statement. They lobby for women to be able to participate freely online without fear of harassment and to be able to shape, define and share knowledge equally with men. In addition to the dangers of phishing, hacking and identity theft, there is also the threat of ‘cyberbullying’, the technological term for harassment. In theory it suggests that an online presence is equal to a physical one because of the mass of personal information available, and because there are no physical barriers, you are reachable and viewable any time, any place. Because you don’t have complete control over your profile, you easily become a victim to harassment or stalking.

But can we really be surprised though when the internet bites back at us through the culture we created around it? We naively post drunken and half-naked pictures of ourselves on any website that promises to exhibit us – suddenly anyone can become a swimsuit model by creating a photo album and asking friends to “share” in order to gain exposure. We “stalk” friends and “follow” strangers. Recently it has also become trend to hack into friends’ Facebook accounts and post embarrassing statuses. Fittingly, this is known on a social level as “frape” (Facebook rape). Yes, it is all fun, games and laughs as long as we are doing it to friends amidst the joy of having 50 “likes” on a post or photo. It is often just difficult to remember that by setting the norm of advocating and practicing this ‘stalker culture’ amongst friends, we allow any other willing face to do so as well.

Dr Kganyago suggests that only by being aware of the internet and the dangers it holds one can react to it. He believes in this sense that cybersecurity needs to be addressed on the level of the national agenda, even implementing it in schools and programmes to educate people on the basics of being street-smart on the web. He further adds that it’s essential for people to learn to identify what information is relevant to share, and where to share it on. People also need to become aware of clicking on links, attachments and advertisements, “Malware and worms are pushed on by fraudulent clicks, not all searches are authentic just as not all ads and even websites are authentic. Just because you found it on a safe site such as Facebook, doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he adds. He emphasises that the most important thing of all, is that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is, “nothing is free on the web, you did not win the competition you never entered and SARS is definitely not paying you any money”.

The latest biannual Microsoft Security Report found that one in every four computers in South Africa is running without up-to-date anti-virus or anti- malware protection. Without up-to-date protection, devices are five times more likely to be infected by malicious software. Kganyago explains that by clicking on that fateful link that the “European Lottery” sent you, you unknowingly download worms that hack through your system, searching either for information, such as banking details or potentially turning your machine in to a “robot” participating in extended hacking through your various accounts.

The dilemma with cybersecurity though, is when does one become too paranoid, much like people who take their home security to the level of a fortified maximum security prison? Connectivity is critical to life today, without which you are social and intellectual pariah. Being afraid of it won’t help you any more than making your bank account number public knowledge. No-one, especially on the hostile world of the internet will pity ignorance. Knowledge is power, awareness is power, and it’s time for us all to take up this power.

Cape Town – Vancouver