Five superstitions about Internet security

Superstitions are the offspring of ignorance and fear. Most of them – like the stuff about black cats, broken mirrors or opening umbrellas indoors – are innocuous quirks passed down by our grandparents. They’re stories whose origin is lost to us, so we tend to humour those that discuss them in earnest and austere whispers.

But as progressive, scientifically minded denizens of the technology revolution, we’re far beyond superstitious beliefs massaged by ignorance – right?

Well, maybe not. The Internet and the digital nether confound even the best of us. We might know how to navigate a browser or log ourselves onto social media, but the mechanisms behind the Internet’s function – and therefore its vulnerabilities – remain a relative mystery. And in our fear of oblique threats of cyber intrusion, we’ve given birth to some fairly sensible and fairly ridiculous beliefs about Internet security.

1. They’re out to get us. 

Let’s start with the most fundamental. Stoked by dramatic news stories, many of us fear that a cyber invasion is an omnipresent danger – that we must remain unscrupulously vigilant against intrusion, lest we wake one day to find our files replaced by a jibing message, courtesy of a foreign invader. The fact is that as our dependency on the Internet has grown, so too has our need to be mindful of the dangers. But the Internet isn’t a festering minefield; not every pop-up message is designed to deceive us; and not every software is a front for a Trojan invasion. Thanks to increased regulation and the sophistication of security software, the Internet isn’t as frightening a place as it was 10 years ago. Be vigilant, but so much that it twists into obsessive paranoia.

2. I have antivirus software – I’m fine.

Less a superstition and more a misinformed idea, antivirus software is not a solution to end all problems. They’re effective, more so than ever, but antivirus software updates reactively; a new threat emerges, and software providers respond with an update. This means there’s a window where your protection isn’t guaranteed. The Internet (and technology) is an ever-changing ecosystem, and new dangers often mutate from previous threats.

3. Somebody is watching me.

The idea that somebody is voyeuristically observing us through our webcam is bizarre to some, and an absolute certainty for others. The idea isn’t unfounded; it is possible for somebody to access a computer and trigger webcam software, or install their own. It’s possible, but it’s not as plausible and common as many believe. A previous security breach will have had to occurred, such as through Trojan horse malware or the downloading of malicious programs, facilitating a backdoor for would-be hackers. It’s important to note that the webcam’s hardware will still react the same – a blue light (or equivalent) will accompany any activity. This should provide some warning to users with minimal vigilance, and reduce the need to have the webcam lenses permanently covered like a digital glory hole.

4. We shouldn’t update immediately.

This belief is in the late stages of atrophy, cited mostly by older Internet users or the naturally paranoid, but it’s still commonly held. The aversion to immediate updates comes from the idea that new updates entail new vulnerabilities. But whilst new updates can result in new problems, many also offer additional protection against known vulnerabilities. There’s a reason tech support’s first suggestion is to update programs – so problems can be identified and solved relative to the current version. 

5. A link can undo me. 

The contents of rogue emails are much feared. And we’re not talking about .exe attachments that install malicious software – which are a blatant security hazard – but links. If a link is going to cause problems, you’ll know about it before it does. The loading of a browser cannot itself cause serious havoc to a computer unless it links to a file directory, and attempts to automatically download or install software. When you start getting permission pop-ups, it’s time to worry. Again, adopt precautions – use an ad blocker – but be sensibly precautious. Email software isn’t intended to be an anxiety machine.