The word “hacking” can have a number of meanings depending on who you ask and how deeply entrenched in the culture they are. For most of us, it’s a generic catch-all term we use to describe the nefarious use of a computer to gain access to someone else’s data – whether it’s for financial, personal, or political gain. That fuzzy understanding leaves a lot of folks concerned about “hacking” in a general, almost philosophical sense. We don’t want Russian hackers to affect the outcome of our elections, and we don’t think perverts should be allowed to sell nude photos of celebrities they steal from the cloud, but politicians and celebrities are high-profile targets and we aren’t. “Hacking” – whatever that means – is a problem for other people, not us.
The thing is, most of the methods employed by these “hackers” aren’t the keyboard magic we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on TV. Often, it’s a numbers game. Criminals aren’t usually digital “snipers” – choosing a target and going after them; they’re more like machine gunners, spraying rounds downrange and tagging anyone foolish or unlucky enough to peek their heads up from behind cover. Instead of bullets, they use Trojans and other kinds of malware that come disguised as normal enough downloads, but actually grant them access to your computer, and all of the data contained within it.
Often, the target is personally identifiable information (PII), like your name, social security number, address and the like. Using that information, these shady characters can steal your identity, empty bank accounts, or open lines of credit in your name. Other times, however, these types of hacks can rob of you something even more personal than your social security number: your dignity.
Using similar methods to those used to access the data on your computer, people can also activate webcams and microphones. Most modern laptops come equipped with webcams right above the screen, even if you don’t need or use one. See that little lens pointed at you while you read this? It could be recording you right now as you sip your coffee, and you likely would never know.