The US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre (NCSC) and Department of State have kicked off the new year with a gift for everyone – tips on how to block spyware attacks.
The advice runs the gamut from the more obvious, such as avoiding suspicious links and having anti-virus software installed, to slightly more esoteric tips that you might not be aware of, such as regularly restarting your device.
Having a device infected with spyware is a huge risk for anybody, opening up your phone or computer to constant surveillance, and meaning that all your data can be compromised.
Protecting Yourself Against Spyware
The advice comes as a collaboration between the US Counterintelligence agency and Security Centre, and the Department of State, published as a PDF.
Among the tips given by the organizations, are:
- Regularly update devices and mobile apps – a key action to protect against vulnerabilities that may have been discovered in software
- Don't click on suspicious links or email attachments – a given, granted, but there's no harm in being reminded that this is always a very bad idea.
- Encrypt and password protect your device – password managers can help here if you're struggling to remember your passwords.
- Disable geo-location options and cover cameras – this one might seem inconvenient if you need to regularly use these elements, but it's good practice if you're concerned about spyware.
- Regularly restart devices – many of us don't restart our mobile phones often, but doing so could distrupt any spyware on the device.
The threat of spyware is very real, and can have dire consequences for those who are unfortunate enough to become a victim:
Journalists, dissidents, and other persons around the world have been targeted and tracked using these tools, which allow malign actors to infect mobile and internet-connected devices with malware over both WiFi and cellular data connections. – US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre and Department of State
The Dangers of Spyware
Spyware is a lucrative business for hackers. Once a computer or mobile phone has been infected with this software, it makes that device an open book, with hackers able to access files, passwords, track keystrokes, location, messaging, browsing history and more. It's even possible to access the device's camera too, meaning that it's feasible for someone with ill intent to see take over a webcam, which could potentially lead to extortion scams.
While ransomware may be security threat most in the headlines at the moment, spyware hasn't gone away. In fact, there have been several high profile cases recently, including Pegasus, an Israeli-created spyware that was identified last year as having many high profile targets, including French president Emmanuel Macron, and Imran Kahn, prime minister of Pakistan.
Some spyware hides in plain sight, with creators piggybacking off popular trends to get their software into people's devices. Google regularly removes apps from its store that masquerade as legitimate apps, but are designed with the intent of stealing user data, such as the ToTok app in 2020.
Staying Cyber Safe in 2021
If you feel like there's been a rise in cyber threats in recent years, then you're not paranoid. Numerous studies have show that more attacks are happening than ever before, spurred by the disarray caused by the pandemic, which has seen an increase in the number of us working remotely.
However, it's not all bad news – there are plenty of steps we can take as individuals and businesses that can mitigate the threat from hackers. The first, and most important step is being vigilant and aware of where attacks can come from. Advice like that from the NCSC and Department of State above is a great start. There is also a lot of tech and software that can assist, too.
Password managers are an exceptional way of remembering multiple passwords without having to rely on using the same one over and over (a great big no!). They can even alert you when your password has been compromised.
Anti-virus software might seem obvious, but it really is a great line of defence against any malicious software out there, and can also save your skin if you let you vigilance slip and click on a suspicious link or attach an infected device.
VPNs are a great way to hide your identity online, making it harder for hackers to target you. They can also provide you with peace of mind when using public Wi-Fi spot.