New Cyberattacks Put Public Officials’ Private Data at Risk

April 23, 2015 @ 12:14 PM
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2 min read

So-called “doxing” occurs when malicious actors gather private information about an individual online and then post that data publicly. While it occasionally happens to private citizens who run afoul of cybercriminal groups or journalists who cover cybersecurity stories, there is a new target on the horizon: public officials. According to a new warning from the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), both law enforcement personnel and public officials are being victimized by these cyberattacks.

New Risks

As noted by the FBI’s recent public service announcement, it’s not just personal doxing that should worry public officials. Hacktivist groups are also targeting family members of government personnel in an effort to compromise their safety or compel a specific response. Additionally, the announcement warns about the rise of “swatting,” in which anonymous reporters call police and claim high-risk criminal incidents are taking place at a victim’s address, prompting a large-scale law enforcement response. The result? Unwanted attention and wasted tax dollars.

So how worrisome is doxing? A recent Ars Technica article describes the experience of one writer who found himself on the receiving end of such a cyberattack. With private details such as his name, address and phone number posted publicly online, he ended up with multiple unwanted deliveries to his door and text messages on his phone.

For public officials, there are higher risks. For example, if details about which schools their children attend are leaked or information about their personal schedules is compromised, there is a real risk of kidnapping or home intrusion. According to Gizmodo, the militant Islamic State group recently posted personal information about more than 100 American military personnel online in hopes that supporters in the United States would seek out and cause harm to these soldiers.

Staying Safe From Cyberattacks

Along with its warning, US-CERT also linked to its tips on staying safe when using social networking sites since this is often the fastest path to compromise for both government officials and law enforcement personnel. It works like this: Police officers or government officials post something using an official Twitter handle or post a blog on their organization’s website. However, in many cases, these “secure” communications contain links to personal social media profiles, which reveal unwanted details.

Protecting this data is a two-step process. First, using easily found social profiles — for example, those that are publicly viewable and use real names — makes doxing cyberattacks simple for cybercriminals. Instead, it’s a good idea to use aliases where possible and require approval to view any images or posted content. The same goes for family members, whose profiles often provide clues about family life and personal habits.

Second, it is also essential to monitor email communications. Always use encrypted message services, and never rely on insecure public wireless connections. It is also important to take precautions offline, such as restricting driver’s license and vehicle information with the Department of Motor Vehicles and real estate data with land title agencies. Finally, public officials should take the time to periodically run their name through a public search engine and see what comes up; there may be surprises in store.

Ultimately, doxing and other information-gathering cyberattacks will always find a foothold, especially in the lives of public officials and law enforcement agents. The goal, however, is to make hacktivists work hard enough for the information they want that their efforts are detected, giving time for potential victims to react and respond.

Image Source: iStock

Douglas Bonderud
Freelance Writer

A freelance writer for three years, Doug Bonderud is a Western Canadian with expertise in the fields of technology and innovation. In addition to working for...
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