How to prevent identity theft

August 2003 Cyber Security

The news of a major financial institution suffering from a case of identity theft has left a bad taste in consumers' mouths regarding Internet banking. How did this happen and what can the man in the street do about this?

Where someone impersonates another person on the Internet or uses someone else's username and password, it is known as identity theft. There are a number of ways that malicious hackers can obtain the information or credentials of a customer of a bank or any other online site that requires usernames and passwords. These could include shoulder surfing (looking over a person's shoulder as they type a password) or a Trojan can be e-mailed to a customer which then captures the keys typed. This type of Trojan is known as a key logger.

The reason hackers are now targeting the consumer, and we can expect to see more of this now that the cat is out of the bag, is that it is infinitely easier to attack an unsuspecting user as opposed to a corporation which has numerous defence mechanisms in place.

For a Trojan to be placed on a home computer, generally an e-mail needs to be opened and an executable program needs to run, which then installs and runs the malicious code such as a Trojan or virus. Home users need to follow the advice on securely using Internet banking that is well advertised on banking sites, and educate themselves on keeping the computer and its software in a secure state. This can be achieved by scanning machines for outstanding patches from Microsoft, checking anti-virus levels and making sure that they do not open suspicious mails from unknown persons. In addition, security software such as personal firewalls should be installed on the PC. This will protect users against blatant hacking attempts.

Digital certificates

An alternative mechanism to using user names and passwords for identifying a site's customers, which are subject to theft as explained above, is to use a digital identity. This is provided using digital certificates, which are issued to clients, and these digital certificates become the access mechanism for websites instead of usernames and passwords.

A digital certificate allows each end user to be identified using cryptographic techniques that will uniquely identify each person and verify the transactions which that person performed. It has multiple benefits, ie, providing identification of the user on access to the site (meaning no more usernames and passwords), proof or evidence of the transaction performed and it can also allow for digitally signed and encrypted e-mails and documents between the transacting parties, saving time and effort of both the customers and institutions.

This all adds up to a solution that guarantees the confidentiality of user information, and ensures that the information that was transmitted is indeed the information that is received. This protects the integrity of the message, and a person cannot deny having originated the transaction at a later date - also known as non-repudiation. In addition, by adopting this technology, the original threat of identity theft has simply been removed.

In summary, customers must take responsibility for their side of the Internet bargain, by ensuring that they keep their personal computers secure by using anti-virus and personal firewall security software, and institutions in turn must review username and password access mechanisms and replace them with digital certificates in order to remove the threat of identity theft.

For more information contact Chris Davis, NamITech, 011 458 0081.

About the author: Chris Davis is an Executive at NamITrust, enterprise security solutions provider within NamITech Limited.





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