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Always Use Caution in Cyberspace

As appeared in Amarillo Globe News

Washington, November 12, 2011

Every day most of us take common-sense precautions about our personal safety and valuables. We lock our doors; we keep our cash in a safe place; we do not give out our bank account or Social Security numbers to anyone we do not trust.

Yet, too many of us do not take such precautions in one of the most dangerous places where many go every day — cyberspace.

There are a wide variety of threats in cyberspace. They range from vandalism and snooping to crime and espionage to, potentially, cyber terrorism and cyber warfare. The biggest threat to most of our home computers is that our sensitive, personal information will get into the wrong hands or that our computer will be used to launch attacks on others without our knowledge. For businesses, both small and large, there is a very real threat that business records or intellectual property — things like blueprints, formulas, business plans — will be stolen. But, importantly, we may never know that our computers have been hacked.

Virtually everyone agrees that this problem is getting worse fast. Some estimates, for example, are that cyberattacks of some form increased 93 percent from 2009 to 2010. While many of these attacks are launched against government agencies or defense companies, most are targeting individuals, businesses, and organizations of all kinds, including those in our area.

Just last week, a friend of mine received an email about an acquaintance who had been robbed in Europe, asking for money to help him out. It was a hoax. Also last week, our home computer got an email about an attempted delivery, asking us to click on a link and give personal information in order to get our package. It was also a fake.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner asked me to lead a Task Force to make recommendations on what Congress could do right away to deal with this problem. You can read our recommendations on my website (www.thornberry.house.gov/cyber). But one of our key findings is that government alone cannot solve this problem. We all have to do our part, just as we all have a responsibility to look after our personal safety.

Estimates are that 85 percent of threats in cyberspace can be eliminated with proper cybersecurity “hygiene.” Good cyber “hygiene” means doing those commonsense things that reduce the chances that we will become a victim. Using antivirus software and keeping it updated will help your computer stay clean and virus-free. The software should hopefully prevent an intrusion or, at least, provide a notification when someone has gained access to your computer. You should also update security patches for your computer’s operating system and other software as soon as they are available — or better yet, have it done automatically.

You can strengthen the protection of your personal information online by making all your passwords strong and unique. Something as simple as changing passwords regularly can reduce intrusions.

Always use caution when connecting to the Internet. Keep an eye out when visiting unknown websites and be especially careful when sharing any personal information or downloading material from a website. You also have to be careful about clicking links or opening up attachments with email, even those that look like they are coming from someone you know.

Finally, leave your computer offline whenever you are not using the Internet. This will reduce the amount of time your computer and your information are at risk each day. It also should further safeguard a machine from being the target of viruses or attackers that regularly scan the Internet for unprotected computers.

This list is by no means complete. But, simple steps can go a long way to prevent your computer from being hacked and to protect your information and your identity. Of course, the threats over the Internet continue to grow and will be constantly changing. There are no magic guarantees to prevent all intrusions. We can, however, protect ourselves with a little common sense.

Visit www.thornberry.house.gov or www.stopthinkconnect.org to find more cyber hygiene tips.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, represents the 13th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves as vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee and as a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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