An overwhelming majority of British adults are now concerned about the online security of their private information, the threats posed by hackers and the possibility of unauthorised access to their data. This was the key finding of recent YouGov research in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks.
Snowden's mass surveillance revelations elevated data privacy concerns, prompting debate over ethics and the power that Governments can gain from gathering data on private citizens. These massive data collection efforts had and still have the potential to erode online privacy as they contradict the core principles of the internet, namely privacy and internet freedom.
Phone tapping and the monitoring of people's online activities were justified by the need to prevent terrorism, which in turn sparked public discussion over a potential trade-off between civil liberties and national security, sometimes with the cost of possible privacy intrusions. As a result, the average user has become more concerned about the security and privacy of his or her personal data; we are all more conscious about the private information we share online and services we use, especially since the NSA's actions showed how web encryption can be bypassed to obtain sensitive data not only from random citizens, but also from high-profile companies.
Famous or not: anyone can be at risk of cyber attack
The privacy risks are felt across the whole of society. 2014's famous celebrity nude photo leaks raised doubts over the security of cloud storage services. The leading theory initially was that a flaw in Apple's iCloud service allowed a hacker to "brute force" his way into the accounts. However, as the story unfolded it still remained a mystery how the hackers had gained access; whether via a weak password or through a software vulnerability.
Nonetheless, the incident forcefully reminded everyone that they can become a victim at any time, whether famous or not, since we all use the same online services. Moreover, the intrusion also fuelled debate regarding copyright laws and the legal framework needed to protect victims of revenge porn or other non-consensual pornography.
Online threats and the future of data security
Personal data can also be exposed when signing up to any service, via a form or web application. By doing so, users typically agree to give away details to businesses and third party vendors who can use it for commercial purposes.
The more sites the user subscribes to, the higher the risk of becoming a victim if the site's whole database (sometimes in plain-text) ends up in the hands of attackers. While some sites only ask for an email address and password, others require sensitive details such as the home address, telephone number and credit card information. In this instance, the threat of being successfully impersonated by identity thieves becomes all too real.
With data protection becoming a growing concern, a shift is underway towards simpler registration methods such as social sign-in via Facebook. New technologies such as multi-factor authentication through biometrics are also increasingly being used to add an extra layer of security to standard password protection. Other authentication methods are in their early stages yet seem very promising: iris scanning, voice recognition in financial services and pulse recognition through wearable devices are just a few of these.
Take steps to protect yourself
Currently, the protection of personal data online requires adherence to security best practices. It is essential to keep your antivirus solution up-to-date to avoid the latest e-threats and to back up data regularly, whether in the cloud or on hardware devices.
Strong passwords should be created using a mix of capital and lower case letters, symbols and numbers, and devices should never be left unattended. For online shopping and banking, it is vital to ensure all websites used are HTTPS-enabled, and when connecting to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, make sure your firewall is turned on.
However, the most important piece of advice is to be vigilant and to not share unnecessary information on social networking sites and other public places. Ultimately, the onus lies on each and every one of us to take appropriate measures to keep personal information safe.