Credit: Elizabeth Heichler
Everybody's freaking out over the Wikileaks revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency can hack Apple and Android smartphones, major PC operating systems -- and even TV sets.
The news is causing ripples in international relations and got companies like Google and Apple to patch holes and issue fixes.
It's also creating unnecessary panic. Wikileaks' characterization of the documents was alarmist and misleading. The press picked up on the alarmism and spread further misinformation.
Many in the public believe that the CIA has some new and hitherto unimaginable ability to hack anything. In reality, the Wikileaks documents reveal what we should have already assumed: The CIA collects knowledge about and tools for hacking things.
The Wikileaks/CIA stories simply remind us that anything with a camera, microphone or IP address could theoretically be hacked.
The question is, will the CIA hack you?
I believe the chances that the CIA (or any other hacker) will watch or listen to you, personally, through your smartphone, PC, TV or IP camera are extremely low. It's probably never going to happen. And if it does, it's unlikely that you'll be affected in any way.
Yes, take precautions. Use encrypted communication. Don't click on links emailed from strangers. Cover your laptop camera with tape like Mark Zuckerberg does.
But anxiety and action shouldn't be based only on what could happen in theory as much as what's likely to happen in practice -- and how much it will affect you.
Some people are afraid of sharks. While the prospect of being eaten by a giant fish is vivid and terrifying, it's also unlikely, old chum. In fact, the drive to the beach is far more dangerous than the swim once you get there.
Likewise, avoid getting hacked. But more important, start taking action on the bigger risk: The stuff publicly posted on social sites.
Anything you post can and will be used against you
Politico reported in December that the U.S. government started asking some foreign visitors to provide Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube accounts, so they can be checked for signs of terrorist connections. It was a pretty gentle request, providing such information is only for those on the visa waiver program, and optional.
In recent months, however, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have begun checking the social media accounts of some U.S. citizens who are also Muslim at the point of entry, rather than as part of the paperwork.
These checks on social media could reveal what travelers have posted publicly. But the government wants the private stuff, too.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in an interview this week that the Trump administration wants travelers from certain countries to provide lists of websites they've visited and their online passwords. He wants U.S. Customs "to get on those websites to see what they're looking at."
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