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Expert: Passwords Pivotal

Peter Singer, senior fellow and director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, is interviewed at the Hanover Inn in Hanover, N.H., on May 5, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

Peter Singer, senior fellow and director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, is interviewed at the Hanover Inn in Hanover, N.H., on May 5, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

Hanover — A leading expert on war and cybersecurity offered some helpful hints on “cyber hygiene” Monday to a Dartmouth College audience.

The advice applies to Internet users throughout the Upper Valley, said Peter W. Singer, including those with sluggish service and frequent power outages. And it could thwart most attacks on personal computers, he said.

Singer is senior fellow and director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, established two years ago at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He spoke to an audience of about 100 at the college’s Filene Auditorium; the event was co-sponsored by the Neukom Institute and the Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Singer, co-author of a new book, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, emphasized that “one of the most important elements of effective cyber-hygiene for everyone — not just nerds — is to use smart passwords and change them regularly.

“More than 90 percent of passwords, according to surveys, are either ‘password’ or ‘123456.’ Hackers know this and can easily get into your personal information,” he explained. “Think about those emails from Nigeria and elsewhere announcing that you have just won a lottery or a large inheritance. Don’t open them.

“The most important foreign government penetration of the United States military network came about because of a ‘candy drop.’ They deliberately planted a shiny object, a thumb drive, in a parking lot near a military base.

“Someone picked it up and plugged it into a base computer; it infected the entire network.”

Singer, whose father is a Dartmouth graduate, Class of 1966, grew up in Charlotte, N.C., became interested in science and the military at an early age. He is a prolific author of articles and books about topics ranging from child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere, use of drones and robots in war and intelligence work, the rise of the corporate military industry. He is also an occasional consultant for movies and videos about various aspects of war.

Although the Internet and the digital age have provided “tremendous benefits, we are reaching a point where the risks are growing fast. About 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies have been hacked. Look at the Snowden affair and what happened to Target. More than 100 nations have established cyber military commands. The 2012 Pentagon budget mentioned cyber 12 times; this year it was 147,” he said.

Singer suggested several actions, “core themes” to address the problem.

“Knowledge is critically important,” he said. “We need to demystify this realm. It’s not just for the IT crowd, or a domain for nerds. We need to help educate people and develop a collective ethic, manage the risks better.

“We teach our kids to cover their mouths when they cough. There is no real value to them but to others. That is a collective ethic, and we need to develop the same thing to better manage cyber-security risks. We have to accept that sometimes bad things are going to happen, but we can manage that with resilience and bounce back.”