UK government has one answer to top 10 security threats: antivirus

Want citizens to actually read the government’s advice to counter information security risks? A top 10 threat list on Buzzfeed with one simple answer might do the trick.

Viral ‘lab’, Buzzfeed, has shown that people love numbered lists. They’re quick to read, easy to digest and, coupled with a tantalising headline, can convey useful information for anyone looking to solve or avoid a problem.

Buzzfeed might not be the first place people look to for security tips from the government, but that could change if a new ‘listicle’ by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) hits its targets.

As part of a broader “cyber streetwise” outreach, the NCA has signed up to Buzzfeed’s Community site (which does not accept payments for branded content) and published “10 Things Cyber Crooks Could Do To Your Computer…without Touching It”. In other words, the NCA's article is about the risks of cyber attacks launched remotely.

The NCA’s list canvasses a wide variety of serious computer security threats to people and business and attempts to explain them in plain language. (And to blend in with Buzzfeed’s style, it even has a GIF — albeit one of a boring flickering screen. But no cats.)

Starting at number 10, the threats include that “some viruses allow criminals to ‘play about’ with your device including switching off your monitor and turning your text to speech”, which seems to refer to the possibility that speech-to-text software can be used maliciously as another way to log key strokes, thus posing a threat to passwords and private information

It also warns of distributed denial of service attacks that can “bring down small business or important public information websites” and covers different methods to install malware: “Infected CDs and USB sticks, and your Wi-Fi network are among the other ways [criminals] spread malicious software.”

Drive-by-downloads are listed as another threat, which could allow criminals to “take control of your computer without even touching it” resulting in access to files, folders and emails or the ability “to take take pictures of what appears on your screen” — otherwise known as ‘screen grabbing’ malware.

The other threats, variously described, include ransomware, keyloggers, password stealers, and hidden access to users’ webcams.

The one fault in the campaign by the UK government agency’s responsible for watching the nation’s “biggest risks” is that it suggests a singular response to every threat: “download and update your security software”.

While that might form part of the response security experts would recommend, having updated security software is far from the minimum measure end-users should take to prevent the attacks the NCA describes

As the Australian Department of Defence notes, home users should first and foremost ensure their installed software -- of any type, not just security -- is up to date. They should also use antivirus, but also be aware of suspicious phone calls and emails, and back up their data.

For readers that bother to seek out the UK agency’s website, they will find more sensible advice than what it's published on Buzzfeed, which includes:

  • install security software and ensure your software and operating systems are up-to-date;

  • don’t open files either on a website or in an email from an unknown or suspicious source;

  • be cautious when putting USB sticks and CDs into your device; and

  • buy legitimate software from reputable companies and download free software with caution.

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