With the ANUSA elections fast approaching, everyone has their eyes on political hacking, though recently we’ve seen hacking of the technological kind take the spotlight. Just last month Ashley Madison, the “have an affair” website, made headlines for the (even more so) wrong reasons, with computer hackers releasing personal data of website members. Another recent story which may have gone unnoticed, was car hacking, where thieves were able to break into cars remotely and take control. If a person was directly affected by both these events, think of the horrible inconvenience they would have faced ‒ unable to drive away from their furious spouse because their car had been stolen. At least Tiger Woods got to drive away before he crashed into a tree!
Ashley Madison’s data was retrieved from secure servers and posted onto the “deep web”; a division of the internet only accessible by certain browsers ‒ sort of like the top shelf in a pantry, where you have to be tall enough to reach it. On the other hand, the cars were hacked remotely using specialized electronic devices, which “listened” to the radio transmission between the car and its remote key. They were then able to determine the digital key. Both of these technologies rely on encryption, where information is represented in a different form. To “read” the encryption a certain method or algorithm must be used. Codes and ciphers are common terms that come to mind when talking about encryption and cryptography, which contrary to common belief, are technically not the same. A code can take any form to represent data, while a cipher often has the same number of characters as the original information. For example, the plaintext “Let’s procrastinate till tomorrow” may be coded as “XBOX2NITE”, but the ciphertext would remain the same length with each letter being exchanged for another.
I’m sure these stories would have made some of you think, “How safe and secure is the world we live in?”. There has always been a balance between convenience and security, since prioritizing one inevitably means compromising on the other in some way. We can even see this happening on an everyday level; almost everyone has a mountain of passwords and identify verifications involved in their lives, designed to keep their information secure. However it is often a large inconvenience trying to remember the string of random letters and symbols protecting our data ‒ since we all know better than to have “password” as our password!
It is important that we keep in mind that security breaches like those reported in the news are a rarity; almost every form of technology designed to protect your data, is secure to some extent. There do exist highly technical methods to ensure greater security, especially when you’re online, but using some common sense goes a long way towards protecting your information. So the next time you’re at McDonalds, turn off your phone’s WiFi and enjoy that Big Mac.