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Should you worry about identity theft?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-09-2017 shaikh zoaib saleem

Earlier this month, US-based credit information company Equifax Inc. said its systems had been struck by a cybersecurity incident that may have affected about 143 million US consumers. A report by Bloomberg said the incident could be ranked among one of the largest data breaches in history. The intruders accessed names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, driver’s licence numbers and also credit card numbers, Equifax said in a statement. 

While this reiterates what cyber security professionals say, that nothing is hack proof, it does remind us of the range of cyber crimes, which revolve around identity theft and frauds. It gives us a chance to reflect upon how well prepared we are, if a cyber attack strikes us, or if our personally identifiable data gets leaked.

According to the Norton Cyber Security Insights Report 2016, 49% of India’s online population, or more than 115 million Indians, are affected by cybercrime at some point with the country ranking second in terms of highest number of victims. “No government or organisation creates something that is designed to fail deliberately. People find the gaps in that system and then try to misuse it,” said Ritesh Chopra, country manager, consumer business unit, Symantec India, a cyber security company. 

While it can be debated as to who should take the blame in different instances, one underlying theme is following basic cyber hygiene. “There are several mobile apps that leak data. While downloading and installing an app, you may give out access to several other things in your device,” said Chopra. 

Most cyber crimes involve leak or breach of public information, which leads to identity fraud. Let’s take a look at what an identity fraud could mean. 

Everything that we do online is linked to a digital identity—an email ID, a phone number or even an IP address of a device. Harshil Doshi, strategy security consultant, Forcepoint India, a cyber security firm, said that as long as the leaked information is limited to names, email addresses, addresses and mobile numbers, there may not be a reason for worrying. “There needs to be a distinction between what information is publicly available and what can be used only privately. People also talk about Aadhaar leaks. As long as it is not my fingerprint and retina scan, there is no cause of concern, because information like name and address are anyway public,” he said. 

However, not everyone agrees with this point of view. Pranesh Prakash, policy director at advocacy group Centre for Internet and Society, said email addresses, date of birth and mobile phone number of an individual are not necessarily public information. “Work-related email addresses may be publicly available online but personal ones are not,” he said. Prakash, however, added that our notion of public information keeps changing.

The concept of identity theft has become complicated as our digital lives expand. “Everything about you as an individual is your identity, including something personal like blood group and medical history. Your social media profile, bank transactions, blogs or online comments are also a part of this. From a fraud perspective, it is equally complex,” said Chopra.  

Your identity can be impersonated in several ways. “The most common methods of identity fraud all require collecting publicly-available information about you,” said Prakash. For example, celebrity leaks in the US (cloud storage was hacked) happened also because there is more information about celebrities publicly available than for an average individual, he said.

Another example could be misuse of information regarding foreign exchange. “In India, there is a limit of buying foreign exchange worth $30,000 for an individual in a year. If information on how many times you exhaust that limit falls in the wrong hands, it can be used for money laundering in your name. How many people think about how PAN and passport copy that one shares to buy foreign exchange, can be misused?” said Chopra. 

Further, health insurance can be fudged and somebody can use the benefit under your name or buy restricted medicines misusing your medical prescription. 

There are provisions in the Indian Penal Code that deal with issues like cheating by impersonation to some extent. “There isn’t anything that adequately covers activities such as getting access to your personal data, which leads to identity fraud, or sufficiently penalizes things like data breaches or data leaks that facilitate identity fraud,” said Prakash. 

The government is working towards data protection laws. A committee for data protection framework has been constituted under Justice B.N. Srikrishna, former judge of Supreme Court.

But it needs to be seen what comes out of these deliberations. “I am quite apprehensive, yet hopeful, about what the committee will produce, especially because they will need to deal with protection of biometric data, leaks of which will be far worse than any other leaks because biometrics is something that cannot be changed at will subsequent to a leak, unlike one’s phone number, email address or password,” said Prakash.  

According to cyber security professionals, prevention seems the only way out. “We have forgotten the difference between the real and virtual worlds. In the real world, if somebody knocks at your door, you will check before opening the door ,” said Chopra. The problem for individuals starts when we click on a malicious link or download a file like a song or an image which could have a malware loaded on it. Once it enters our system, it immediately starts stealing information. 

While the law may take some time to evolve and address the issues arising out of larger data breaches from corporate entities or even from the government, it is important to be vigilant, which includes having complex passwords, not sharing passwords, being aware of suspicious emails and messages and downloading files and software only from reputed sources. While this alone may not guarantee you protection online, it certainly minimises the risk.

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