Stay safe online

Local computer expert offers tips to keep you safe on the web

BUCKHANNON — Knowledge is power in the real world, and knowledge of personal information online translates into money and power, Brian Williams told the Buckhannon Rotary Club Tuesday.

Williams, web services and IT manager for WVU Medicine St. Joseph’s Hospital, taught club members about cyber security risks lurking on the internet and how to stave them off during Rotary’s regular lunch meeting.

“Security is important because we provide personally identifiable information when we get online,” Williams said. “It’s virtually impossible to do anything online without giving the website or person some kind of information about yourself.”

“Your information is amazingly valuable,” Williams explained. “In fact, it’s what the internet is built on today … all the World Wide Web focuses on is the value of information.”

Williams used Facebook as an example, noting that once a Facebook user searches for something online, that particular item then typically pops up as an advertisement on the person’s news feed.

“Don’t think for one second Facebook doesn’t know what you’re interested in,” Williams said. “Your information means real hard dollars, real cash to those corporations, and if we don’t control our information, we’re just giving up — we might as well hand over our checkbooks.”

Williams gave a disclaimer at the outset of his presentation that he wasn’t specially trained in cyber security; however, he said he’s well-versed in the basics of cyber security as a result of his many years of experience with online issues at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Williams reviewed a few basic concepts, including the “bad actor,” which is the person typically responsible for engineering a cyber security threat. Many are dubbed hackers. 

“Hackers are extremely knowledgeable, brilliant people … they’re not just some kid that eats crackers and hot pockets and sits in his bedroom, although it could be,” Williams said. “But some of these people are really sophisticated, and many of them, as you might imagine, get hired by corporations across the globe to assist them with their security efforts because the hackers are the ones who know the holes, and they teach people how to plug the holes.”

Williams said there are so many “bad actors” in some areas of the world that WVU Medicine has taken measures to block entire countries from accessing its network. China, Russia and other eastern bloc countries “represent such a risk that WVU Medicine literally doesn’t let them in the door.”

“I know that seems extreme, but they represent such a risk,” Williams said. “I can’t say that’s because the countries are bad, but what I would say is that there isn’t the kind of control … particularly the monitoring control … that we’re able to do in the United States in those countries.

“And, I’ll be very frank — a country like China that imposes such restrictions on the individual use of the internet is naturally engendering people who will fight that system, people who will fight against that restriction because they want to be free, and suppressing freedom doesn’t work — we all know that.”

Williams also reviewed a few other concepts, including encryption, malware, bloatware and ransomware. Encryption is scrambling data so it can’t be used by another party unless that person has access to a mechanism that unlocks the data, while decryption is, conversely, returning the information back to a useful state, he said.

While “bloatware” describes unnecessary software or programs that consume an operating system’s space and resources — Williams said Candy Crush Saga was a good example of bloatware — malware is designed with an intent to harm.

“One thing malware can do is to grab information and send it to a bad actor,” Williams said. “A virus is like a subcategory of malware, and it’s typically designed to be malicious and it self-replicates so that it spreads everywhere.”

Even more sinister than malware, ransomware is crafted to confiscate data and “hold it hostage,” Williams said.

“Ransomware is the greatest threat that we face in IT in health care today,” he said. “It gets in there and grabs your information, encrypts it and forces you to pay to decrypt it. The only way to get it back is to pay them what they want or you’re praying someone has the knowledge and expertise to decrypt it for you.”

Williams also warned Rotary members to be wary of imposterware, defined as programs or websites that are not what they seem to be and sometimes impersonate ransomware. One example is a website that says a person’s computer has been infected by a virus and instructs them to call a telephone number for a “fix.”

“That’s actually not a virus, and it’s barely malware because it’s not even true,” Williams said. “They’re trying to fool you into calling that number, to tell them everything. Of course, the information you give them is the value.”

Often, web surfers can just kill the webpage, and the problem will disappear, Williams said.

One way to stay safe is to ensure all websites visited have a Secure Sockets Layer, apparent in the presence of an ‘s’ (https://).

“It lets you know the website you are visiting is safe,” Williams said. “There are still dangers, but you’re much, much safer if you’re going to a website that is SSL.”

Williams offered a slew of other cyber safety tips, including avoiding connecting to open public wireless networks that don’t require a password; using different passwords for every website; storing information somewhere other than “the cloud;” and investing in a reliable password manager, such as Keeper, LastPass and Dashlane.

“Don’t click on links in emails,” Williams warned. “If you see something you want to look at, go to the website itself and search for that item. Stay away from websites that are sketchy, indicated by bad grammar, poor spelling and lots of pop-ups.”

While no operating system is completely safe, Williams said Apple’s MacOS poses less of a risk than Microsoft Windows because it has fewer users and is thus less of a target.

“Microsoft Windows is a bigger target, but no operating system is 100 percent safe,” he said.

In other Rotary news, at the Tuesday, Nov. 28 Rotary meeting, Dr. Tamara Bailey, assistant professor of history and director of international studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, briefed members on Wesleyan Abroad, the umbrella program under which study abroad programs operate. Bailey said a recent trip to Cuba has proven to be the college’s most popular study abroad trip. Senior Katie Robinson accompanied Bailey to discuss her recent trip to Israel, while master’s of business administration student Greg Strader talked about his time in Seoul, South Korea.

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