Thursday, April 14, 2011

Webmail! Do you understand the threats to your online and personal identity?

A few days back, Yahoo sent me an email thanking me for being a loyal user of their webmail service for the last eleven years. It was a moment of  introspection on the manner in which my email usage changed over the years; from a replacement to personal snail mail to an account where I receive job offers, financial statements, password resets, spam, promotions, and information from my Linked in, Twitter, Facebook, Google and several other such social networking, news and knowledge sources.
I grew so accustomed to using webmail that I barely noticed that a compromise of my email account would severely inconvenience me.  The same is true for 500 million webmail users, some of whom, as I wrote in my post “3G,Cell Phones, Social Networking and the not so Innocent Obsession “ use these accounts to store and circulate very personal messages, snaps and video’s.
When I first created my footprint on the Internet through my Yahoo account, I did so to segregate my personal correspondence from my corporate one. I knew that anyone could snoop or filter my emails both on the Internet and also in the office, but given the choice of a known versus unknown person snooping into my personal correspondence and the miniscule probability that an anonymous nobody like me on the Internet would interest anyone, a Yahoo email account was a better option. It still is, though the chances that my emails are analyzed for marketing purposes using sophisticated programs are quite high, the filtering still remains impersonal.
In these eleven years, the number of Internet users grew, driven by a consumer driven online ecommerce, social networking and proliferation of access mechanisms such as broadband connection, home desktops, mobiles and cybercaf├ęs. Companies began to use the Internet for business and the webmail account replaced snail mail for business to consumer correspondence. Poor and rich could at a low cost become members of the Internet fraternity with a webmail account. These changes ensured that the personal webmail accounts became the center of our Internet identity and therefore increasingly targeted by hackers, governments and scamsters.
Hackers primarily hack into webmail accounts to gain access to financial data, credentials to log into financial systems or in some cases to blackmail victims. They normally access your account through weak passwords, secret questions or sophisticated malware designed to steal your credentials. In some cases the theft of your email account can be used to seize your online identity.
Governments may use it to spy on citizens and by law can seize contents or monitor your mail through service providers. Mail travels in an unencrypted store and forward manner, therefore email between users from two countries may pass through a third country whose government could spy on it.
Scamsters simply flood your mailbox with spam mail enticing you to be part of their fraudulent schemes. Should you fall for one, you would voluntarily be parting with an advance fee to receive a reward that never arrives. An earlier post Online Email Scams a multibillion dollar business or not? You decide gives a graphic description of these scams
Use strong passwords
Avoid cybercafe's

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