You Should Treat Public Computers Like Public Bathrooms: With a Little Fear

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July 15 2014 5:46 PM

You Should Treat Public Computers Like Public Bathrooms

With a little fear.

(Continued from Page 1)

But sometimes we risk forgetting that the lessons and language of physical security still matter and still apply. Yes, you can steal information from a computer halfway across the world—but it’s often much easier, especially for criminals with limited technical expertise, to steal from a computer you can walk right up to—a computer in a hotel’s business center or college library. Even privately owned computers that are left unlocked present a prime target for the technically unskilled criminal, and while people routinely use lock screens on their cellphones, they often don’t take the same degree of precaution with their laptops.

The good news about the physical security elements of cybersecurity threats is that, just as they are relatively easy for nontechnical people to exploit, they are also fairly straightforward for other nontechnical people to defend against. Essentially, you want to make it as difficult as possible for anyone who is not you to ever use your private computer, and you should only use public ones under the assumption that anything you do on them may be captured or accessible to others. Just as you might take basic hygiene steps to avoid germs and bacteria in public bathrooms (or on public keyboards), some simple cyber hygiene measures can help you ward against the digital diseases carried by the outside world. This means always—always, always—locking your computer whenever you walk away from it, not letting other people use it, and not checking your primary email account or bank account—or doing anything else potentially sensitive—in a hotel business center or on any other public computer.

This certainly won’t protect against all cybersecurity threats—it won’t even protect against all of the problems posed by hotel networks, which can be used to install malware on personal computers, or even public computers—my sophomore year, those same computers in the main campus library that I occasionally (and foolishly) used to check my email were used to send anonymous death threats via email. But at the very least, these sorts of measures will help weed some of the less technically talented from the field of would-be cybercriminals and allow us to continue studying and learning about the novel nature of these digital threats without losing sight of the ways in which they are not entirely new. Cybersecurity and physical security are closely related—increasingly so, as more physical objects are connected to online infrastructure in various ways—and even as computer networks pose some new security challenges, they can still benefit from applying some of the older lessons of physical security.

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This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Josephine Wolff is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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