I’m tempted to bring out a regular appendix to this column entitled ‘breach of the week’ – such is the relentless flow of data leaks and pilfering of our personal information from companies that ought to have kept it safer.
It would list the mess-ups, muddles and successful data thefts that have been reported by some of the organisations who claim to ‘take the security of your data seriously’. It wouldn’t be a riveting read, but there would be no shortage of material because, under new laws, companies must publicise these blunders quickly. Hitherto, many were inclined simply to keep quiet. The news usually leaked out eventually, which, of course, made everything look worse. In business, there is a very old and good rule relating to bad news: tell it all and tell it fast.
The juiciest two of the current crop are from Facebook and the Tory Party. The Tories have a problem in this area; they somehow manage to look out of their depth much of the time. It must be especially galling for them because Labour is very sharp at the digital stuff.
This time, the Tories set up a phone app for use during their conference, and then allowed it, briefly, to expose the phone numbers of all MPS and journalists who were registered with it. What’s more, users could edit the information. Predictably, some rascals had fun with some of the MPS’ photos.
I doubt that much harm was done, but there is no doubt that the Tories were guilty of a breach of personal data security. They may be fined, and so they should be; when we trust our details to an organisation we don’t expect them to be passed around.
Then there is the recent Facebook calamity, which is a much more serious problem, at least in terms of scale. For a while (probably since 2017), hackers have been able to exploit a weakness in the website to view all the personal details of up to 90 million Facebook users; names, addresses, credit card details… the lot.
The odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter to Facebook users. Within my own circles, I detect a sense of weariness about Facebook and a feeling that its time is over. I suspect, however, that we don’t know what we are talking about.
If you believe the headlines, the game is up: ‘Facebook loses $100bn in value!’ Well, yes, but the share price is still higher than it was in May; in just three months this year, it generated £10 billion in revenue, up 40 per cent, and user numbers were up 11 per cent. It employs almost 50 per cent more people than it did a year ago. It seems to be a money machine.
The truth is, I suspect, that 95 per cent of its users don’t care about the data issues, and most of the 5 per cent that do are still registered with it (like me). The cash keeps on rolling in.
So how should those of us who do care protect ourselves? There is one small step I can recommend that might help you sleep a little sounder. Stop storing credit card details on shopping websites such as Amazon and Marks & Spencer. I know it makes buying online easier, but it also means your financial nether regions are exposed to any successful hacker who gets past the defences.
Just like the bank robber Willie Sutton, who said he robbed banks ‘because that’s where the money is’, hackers go after the likes of Facebook and Amazon because that’s where the data is. So, please, think twice before storing card details on a retail website. They’re all likely to be hacked sooner or later.
Come and learn more about how to get the best out of the internet at my course on 28th March 2019. See page 59 for full details.