Most of you have heard the news that Governor Sarah Palin’s Yahoo-based email account has been hacked, and the contents of her messages, including some family photos, are now being posted all over the Internet, and even being quoted in the mainstream media.
Now I suspect this dirty trick was perpetrated more as a publicity stunt than by people actually trying to find out some secret information about the Republican vice presidential candidate, though it might be a combination of both. Regardless, the question is how it might have happened, and whether it could happen to you too!
I’m not about to tell you about the tricks hackers might use to gain control of your email box, because I’m sure they use techniques that I could only begin to understand. But there are two simple things you can do to protect yourself, and they don’t require buying extra software.
First and foremost, don’t publish your email address online. That only gives ammunition for spammers and other Internet criminals to fill your mailbox with junk. Worse, it creates the climate for someone to hack in, particularly if the account belongs to a high-profile personage.
In the case of Governor Palin, part of the blame for that disclosure rests squarely on the shoulders of the Washington Post reporters who released her Yahoo addresses. While they have a perfect right to examine various matters concerning a candidate for high office, posting personal information of this sort represents a serious lack of ethics, and it may be why this entire episode occurred.
Now some people actually create temporarily addresses (or aliases) to use for online commerce and other transactions where the information is given out to third parties. That way, if the account is compromised, it can be quickly deleted without harming your important mail.
In this case, Governor Palin has also been accused of allegedly doing business for the state of Alaska via her personal email account. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the ease of cracking her account does demonstrate a lack of knowledge on her part when it comes to Internet questions.
Once you have established your address, temporary or otherwise, you should always use a strong password. That way, if a third party does acquire the address, it will make it doubly difficult to hack. A typical strong password is generally a random combination of upper and lower case letters and numbers. If that proves to be difficult to remember, you might use a normal word, interspersed with numbers and a random capital letters. That would still make it more difficult for password sniffers to figure it out.
One example might be teN3nIs4bU8m. The three numbers might have personal significance to you, so they are easily remembered. Regardless, it’s not a bad idea to write it down, and put it in a safe, secure location, such as a bank vault along with your most important documents.
I suppose if you’re not a supporter of Governor Palin, you might just as well suggest that she got what she deserved, but that’s not the point. She deserves her privacy as much as anyone, and this particular prank happens to be a serious offense. The perpetrators, if they’re ever caught — and I doubt that they will be — can face an extended vacation in a federal prison.
However, I rather suspect that Alaska’s most famous “hockey mom” might have been the victim of a rather pathetic system devised by Yahoo for retrieving a lost password. In such an instance, the account holder is asked some basic questions that, the service provider presumes, could only be answered by that person and nobody else. In Governor Palin’s case, such information as her zip code, date of birth, and even where she met her husband, are in the public record. So it was simple for a hacker to trick the system and gain access to her account.
Aside from this lapse, and Yahoo is no less guilty than other email services, they do appear to be working towards making sure they provide a safe environment for their users. However, Yahoo! Mail is also a den of spam. I know I had our sites hosted by them some years back, and I used their email hosting facilities for my regular business mail.
Alas, I got thousands of bogus messages. So many, in fact, that I once lost a serious sale to a client because her message with a routine inquiry got caught in the morass of junk. As a result, I never saw it until it was too late.
At present, most email addresses on this site are encrypted by special software, so few of them can be detected by spam robots. Most of the time, we simply redirect you to a special contact page, where your information goes through a background antispam detector, which also helps reduce the amount of junk that ends up in our mailboxes.
Now I realize very few of you, even if your accounts are hacked, will find the contents of your email exposed all over the Internet. But you should take the above precautions anyway. It won’t stop all spam or totally protect your accounts from being compromised, but at least you’ll have an extra couple of ounces of protection, and that’s always worth it.