With passwords and MFA out of the way, let’s next look at connected apps or services that are tied to our priority accounts. When you log into other sites on the web through Facebook, Google, or another social account, as well as when you install social media apps or games, you are sharing information about those accounts with those services. This may be as limited as the email address and username on file, or may include much more information like your friends list, contacts, likes/subscriptions, or more.
A well-known example of this data-harvesting method is the Cambridge Analytica story, where installing a social media app opened up access to much more information than users realized. (Note: as mentioned in the linked article, Facebook added protective measures to limit the amount of data available to app developers, but connected accounts can still present a liability if misused.)
With this in mind, look under the Security or Privacy section of each of your account’s settings, and review where you have either used this account to log into a third-party website or allowed access when installing an app. Here are some handy links to some of the most common services to check:
If you aren’t going to use the app again or don’t want to share any details, remove them. Once you’ve checked your accounts, repeat this process with all the apps installed on your phone.
Just like connecting a social account to a third-party game can share information like your contact info and friend’s list, installing an app on your mobile device can share information including your contacts, camera roll and more. Fortunately, mobile OSes have gotten much better at notifying users before installation on what information is shared, so you should be able to see which apps might be nosier than you’re comfortable with.
Finally — and this is really for the nerds and techies out there — check if you have any API (short for “application programming interface”) keys or browser extensions connected to your accounts. API keys are commonly used to let different apps or services “talk” between one another. They let you use services like Zapier or IFTTT to do things like have your Spotify favorites automatically saved to a Google Sheet, or check Weather Underground to send a daily email with the forecast.
Browser extensions let you customize a web browser and integrate services, like quickly clicking to save an article for review on a “read it later” service like Instapaper. Even if you trust the developer when installing these apps, they may pose a risk later on if they are recovered or taken over by an attacker. These “zombie extensions” rely on a broad install base from a legitimate service which can later be misused to gather information or launch attacks by a malicious developer.
We’ve made great progress already, and taken steps to help defend your accounts from prying eyes going forward – now it’s time to lock down your previous activities on social media. Rather than enumerate every option on every service, I’ll highlight some common tools and privacy settings you’ll want to check:
Before moving on to email, I’ll add another plug for the NYT Social Media Security and Privacy Checklists if you, like me, would rather have a series of boxes to mark off while going through each step above.
Security experts know that you can’t erase the possibility of risk, and it can be counterproductive to build a plan to that expectation. What is realistic and achievable is identifying risk so you know what you’re up against, mitigating risk by following security best practices, and isolating risk where possible so that in the event of an incident, one failure doesn’t have a domino effect affecting other resources. If that seems a bit abstract, let’s take a look at a practical example.
Tech journalist Mat Honan was the unlucky victim of a targeted hack, which resulted in a near-complete lockout from his digital life requiring a Herculean effort to recover. Fortunately for us, Mat documented his experience in the Wired story, “How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking,” which offers an excellent summary of exactly the type of domino effect I described. I encourage you to read the full article, but for a CliffsNotes version sufficient for our needs here:
Honan’s article goes into much more detail, including some of the changes made by the services exploited to prevent similar incidents in the future. The key takeaway is that having a couple of emails without strong authentication tied to all his most important accounts, including the recovery of these email accounts themselves, meant that the compromise of his Amazon account quickly snowballed into something much bigger.
We’re going to learn from that painful lesson, and do some segmentation on our email channels based on the priority and how public we want that account to be. (“Segmentation” is an industry term that can be mostly boiled down to “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, and keep critical or vulnerable resources separate from each other.) I would suggest setting up a few different emails, listed here from least- to most-public:
For all of the above, of course, we’ll create strong passwords and set up 2FA. And speaking of 2FA, you can use the same split-channel approach we followed for email to set up a dedicated verification number (using a VOIP service or something like Google Voice) when sending a passcode by SMS is the only option supported. Keeping these recovery numbers separate from your main phone number reduces the risk of them being leaked, sold, or captured in an unrelated breach.
Good news: We’re almost done with doxxing ourselves! In the next section, we’ll sweep out those unused accounts to avoid leaving data-filled loose ends and take a look at how data brokers profit off of your personal information and what you can do to opt-out.
You’ve made it this far so maybe you’re passionate like we are about developing innovative ways to make security accessible. We’d love for you to join our mission.
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