A Public Service Announcement about Passwords, the Cloud, Your Computer and Your Phone

If you follow these sorts of nerdy tech things, you may have heard about the Wired reporter who had his entire online life hacked a few days ago. Mat Honan freely admits he should have known better, but he was like too many people who are increasingly putting their lives online in ever connecting ways. Not backing up his computer. And trusting that nothing bad would ever come of it.

Gmail. The Cloud. Amazon. Apple. Services and companies we all do business with and these days, have our personal lives intertwined with.

The short story is Mat had his Apple iCloud account broken into as well as his Amazon, Twitter and Gmail accounts. Within minutes, his iPhone was rendered inoperable, his entire laptop was erased, his Gmail account was deleted, his Twitter account was taken over and embarrassing tweets were posted.


You can read the article for the full story if you wish, but before you simply shake your head and count your lucky stars that it wasn’t you and get back to Facebook cat videos, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Have I not gotten around to implementing a backup system for my computer or laptop, even though I’ve been meaning to, because I really know I should? Are you like Mat when suddenly all of his precious family photos and other documents that were only in one place on his laptop and are now gone forever. The motto I continuously preach is, “If it’s only in one place, it doesn’t exist.”

2) Did I ignore the message when I logged into my Gmail the other day about the new Two Step Verification that Google now offers for my computer and other devices that all use the same Gmail password? It’s so new that most people haven’t even heard of it. Even I ignored it until I read Mat’s story.

3) Do I love the convenience of 1-Click shopping on Amazon and the iTunes Store? We all do. Who wants to constantly enter their credit card number for every .99 cent song we purchase?

4) Do I use cloud services, such as iCloud to keep all of your devices magically in sync with each other? It really is like wonderful magic.

5) Do I have so many online accounts and social networking sites such as Facebook, FourSquare, Gmail, Twitter, iCloud, all linked together in such an interconnected tangle of ways that I can’t even remember them all? We have all been presented with the “Do you want to link this account?” message on Facebook and other places. And we often, without really thinking about it, just click, Allow.

If you’re like most people, you probably answered Yes to most if not all of the above questions. And the odds are, even if you continue on this slightly reckless digital path, you may never experience the grief and personal violation that Mat experienced.

Except for backing up your computer. Really. You should have that shit backed up or it will bite you some day. Seriously. I’ve been called too many times by a friend in a meltdown when their hard drive has failed.

The good news is that Apple and Amazon have, this week, already made some changes to the security of your online information and how it can be accessed to help prevent the exact same thing that happened to Mat from happening to others. That’s great. But it should also give us all pause that preventing today’s hack doesn’t really protect us all from tomorrow’s unknown digital intrusion.

So what can we do?

First, don’t freak out. Breathe. This is not meant to be a scare-blog. Just a discussion about being aware of how we are increasingly putting so much of our lives online. We trust companies and our fellow web travelers to be nice and take care with any valuable information we choose to share with them. But there are always going to be a few people who try to take advantage of that trust. Be it the bored 19 year-old who erased Mat’s computer and phone, or someone more malicious, trying to get access to your bank account or credit cards and steal your identity.

Being online and connected is wonderful. But most of us wouldn’t leave the house without locking the door and yet, we really do just that when we use the same password for everything we connect to. Or when we link all of the business and social services we use without first taking a few precautions.

Gmail isn’t free because Google is nice. Ditto for Facebook. Pinterest. Twitter. We pay for these “free” services by giving them access to our lives. Perhaps it’s a fair tradeoff. But more likely, perhaps these companies are getting an insanely great deal for the amount of information we give them in exchange for allowing us to post photos of what we had for lunch. Like taking candy from a baby.

Don’t use the same password for everything. That’s the first easy thing you can do. If you read the article about Mat you’ll see how easy it is to break into one account and have access to so many other accounts. I actually have a program that keeps track of all of my passwords because for every website, mail account, social network, shopping and banking site I use, I have a different password for them all. Yes, it’s hundreds of sites, all with different passwords.

I also went ahead and spent a half an hour learning about Google’s Two-Step Verification System for my Gmail and Google Calendars accounts. Setting it up might feel a little advanced for some, so give yourself a little uninterrupted time to go through the instructions and digest it all. This isn’t a process to start when you’re running late to a meeting. But now my Gmail account on my computers, iPhone and iPad have a bit more security in case one of them is stolen or remotely accessed in nefarious ways.

I don’t want to lose everything in my digital life because I registered at some random website three years ago to look at something stupid, only to learn their server was compromised and now some kid in China is selling my Visa number to anyone who wants it. It happens.

And sweet Zeus’s beard, back up the photos on your laptop and phone. Please. I die a little inside every time I have to tell someone their baby photos are gone forever.

I use Apple’s Time Machine, as well as CrashPlan and Dropbox to back up important information and files from all of my computers. Mozy and Carbonite are two others that I haven’t used, but have had some good reviews.

I wrote a blog about different ways to back up your computers in much greater detail about two years ago if you can stand more tech talk.

It’s easy to get an automated backup system up and running.

Because tears can really ruin your computer keyboard.

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5 thoughts

  1. Hi Billy and thanks for the info on how to protect yourself against nasty hackers.

    My question is what program are you using to keep track of your passwords?

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Hello Von. Thanks for the kind words.

    I’ve used a few password programs over the years. I started out with a program called Serial Storage for Mac back in 2003. It was discontinued so a couple of years ago I switched to a program called Wallet by Acrylic Software of Vancouver, which I currently use. It can sync with a password (the only one I need to remember), across any devices I wish using Dropbox, so I always can access my passwords and serial numbers wherever I am as long as I have the Wallet app installed on that device.

    Sadly, the Acrylic team just moved to Facebook, so I’m not sure what that means for future development and support, which is why I didn’t mention it by name in the blog. I’m sure I’ll get another year or two of use out of it before it won’t run on the latest OS and then I’ll have to look for something new. But for now, it really works great for me.

    They key thing when choosing any password database program is to make sure it’s password protected and encrypted, but also that if you need to migrate to another app in the future (not sure if you’re a PC or Mac or Linux user), you can export your data in a form that could be imported into something else should you ever need to.

    Also I find that choosing an app that is also available for my mobile devices is key because if I’m away from my main computers and need to quickly login to a site on another computer, I’m able to access my passwords on my phone as well.

    Hope this helps. Glad so see you’re making an effort to keep yourself protected. It’s really worth it.

  3. I appreciate your time replying to my question Billy. It’s been something I’ve needed to get done for some time…backing up and changing passwords…I have my work cut out for me.

  4. I read that the other day and decided I wasn’t a paranoid freak for having a different password for every account I’ve opened. That it was OK that I have a terabyte hard drive permanently connected to my computer for weekly backups. That I regularly send one terabyte external HD back home to Indiana to live with my mother every 6 months. That I have Timeline constantly syncing to my computer. And I am totally psyched that I’ve never enabled one click purchasing anywhere! But most of all, I’m really really proud of myself for never ever ever opening a “free” email account with gmail, yahoo or hotmail.

    And very very proud of myself for keeping hard filed negatives of all my images incase I ever need to spend eternity scanning all of them again due to some freak accident. And the whole terabyte HD at the parents as a backup if there’s an earthquake, fire, tsunami all at once in California.

    Paranoia won’t destroy ya. LOL

  5. Zoe! Gold stars for you!

    Of course, it’s not a surprise, that someone who lives wonderfully in the analog world of chemical emulsions wouldn’t have made a blind leap into digital anything without a solid plan.

    Same here on the negatives. Scanned, filed and locked up. Scanning for all of eternity indeed. It’s taken me years and I’m not completely done yet.

    Love the inland drive shipping! I have another friend on the left coast who keeps telling me she is going to send me a drive with her precious files to protect it from the random mudslides, fires, quakes, locusts and frogs.

    A little dash of paranoia goes a long way!

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