Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Consumers: protecting yourself online - overview






It's not new news but doesn't seem to have received as much attention as I think it should, so I want to mention the UK communications regulator Ofcom's report "Online protection - A survey of consumer, industry and regulatory mechanisms and systems", which was released back in June 2006.

Why do I think that paper's worth mentioning? Because:
  • it has a nice overview (in section 3) of the internet and its structure and how it works, with enough detail to provide a decent outline but in terms such that an intelligent non-geek can understand the key technical points (an approach I'm always keen on), with a helpful and clear glossary of technical terms to do with the Net (e.g. cookies, firewall, dictionary attack, even Ajax and blog!)
  • from a consumer protection viewpoint, it's a good summary of, as it says on the tin, the main issues relating to users safety, protection and security on the Net, in a broad sense (including the protection of children / minors, not just consumers in a "shopping" sense), and the technical, legal or regulatory and self-regulatory means used by the main players (like ISPs, content producers, Web service providers, aggregators, etc, all the way to the end users i.e. consumers) to enhance security and protect consumers in different states, not just in the UK but in other countries also.
For the intelligent lay person who wants to know more about online dangers and risks, and what could be done to protect themselves, the paper explains and outlines the main issues to do with:
  • personal data protection - collection of personal data and monitoring of online activities by others, identity theft, what are phishing and pharming, spam
  • internet shopping (e-commerce) - online shopping in relation to trading standards (protection if you receive duff goods or services), fraud
  • inappropriate or illegal content like child pornography, racist material, internet gambling, internet advertising
  • attacks on users' computers -by bad hackers, malware (viruses, worms, Trojans) and rogue internet diallers.

What antivirus, anti-spyware, firewall etc?

By the by, for anyone interested my list of essential (free for personal use, generally) protective software would include:
I download updates and run the anti-spyware etc like clockwork at least once every week, and check for and get Windows security updates too at least once a week. I never open email attachments I'm not expecting, not even from people I know, and certainly not if they're supposed to be exe files, screensavers or the like. (I used to run my anti-virus once a day, but decided I could survive with once a week). Touch wood and hope I'm not tempting fate, but I've only ever been caught out twice..


The approach focuses more on law and regulation in different countries than on technical methods of protection, so skip all the references to laws etc if you want to, but I think the general outline of key possible threats to Net users is pretty useful as an overview.

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