Every day, there are myriad threats to the United States and its citizens, both at home and abroad.
Most prevalent of those threats, members of Homeland Security have stated on the record, is the threat of cyber attacks — even more so than terrorist attacks.
Not even the President of the United States is immune to all the dangers of personal privacy and identity theft — as was evident when word came out that the computer system of the White House itself was compromised recently, in just one of the latest in a long line of mass data breaches to hit the news wires.
Reuters reports that the personal information of countless Americans may have been accessed by hackers when the White House's computer system was breached. Though the incident took place in October, most news reports have just begun to surface in the last few weeks.
Current theories by investigators indicate the breach may have been committed by a group of Russian hackers, according to Reuters.
John Thune, a committee chairman for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee said that, while it does not appear any classified information was accessed, the White House's unclassified system was accessed, and emails were read that may have included legislative and policy discussions, communications with foreign diplomats, and the personal information and schedules of many members of the government, as well as "the personally identifiable information of many Americans," White House National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh told Reuters.
The New York Times also reports that it appears President Barack Obama's unclassified emails were also accessed by the hackers, possibly through his personal Blackberry.
Fortune Magazine reported that the hackers may have gained access to the system through, of all things, viral videos of "silly monkeys." When someone opened the silly monkey video to watch it, the video installed a virus on the person's computer, giving hackers the access they needed.
The Senate Commerce Committee is reportedly convening a panel to further investigate the breach and devise a plan to more closely protect the federal government's computer systems.
What can you do, as a private citizen, to help protect yourself from hacking or identity theft?
Stay vigilant, and know the warning signs. Keep your eyes out for red flags, such as receiving a letter from the IRS (a letter - remember the IRS will never call you!) indicating that more than one tax return was filed with your name or social security number, or noticing strange charges on your credit card or bank accounts, no matter how small the amount. Signs such as these could indicate your personal information has been accessed, and thieves are testing the waters through small means.
Do not carry sensitive documents on you. You should only carry important personal documents such as your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport on you when absolutely necessary. Go to the trouble to obtain a fireproof locked box or safe to keep them in at all other times.
Check your credit report regularly. The quicker any breach or theft is caught, the easier it will be be to undo. Identity theft that takes years to discover can be very difficult to reverse and can hurt your long-term credit score and financial history.
Protect your personal information on your computers and other devices. Protect your personal computers by using firewalls and anti-spam/virus software, and be sure to update security patches and change passwords for Internet accounts regularly — every 30-60 days if possible. You can set up an email or smartphone alert to remind you to do so. Changing passwords frequently can effectively ward off hackers.
Opt out of as many marketing lists and pre-approved offers as possible. These can be easy traps for gathering your personal information. Whenever you have the time, take a moment and unsubscribe from unnecessary email lists, and add your name to as many Do Not Call lists as you can.
Be wary of what personal information you give out over the phone or online. Whenever possible, only do so if you are confident you know who is asking and that they are trustworthy, or if you initiated the contact with the person. Remember — don't give out information just because someone asks for it. Make sure it is absolutely necessary.
Shred documents before throwing them away. Countless identity theft cases can be traced back to old-fashioned dumpster diving. Don't give thieves the materials they need — shred any documents that contain any more information than your name and mailing address.