Interlude: It is a dangerous world out there

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 28, 2019 - February 03, 2019.
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I would like to think that I have an overdeveloped sense of personal security, coupled with a healthy belief in libertarian principles. Notwithstanding the fact that my family, friends and colleagues regularly misconstrue these traits for paranoia manifesting as an intense mistrust of technology, salespeople and cats, these virtues have served me well over the years.

Sure, I make a few small sacrifices here and there for not jumping on the e-commerce bandwagon. But when you think about it, do you really need a 60% group-buying discount for that Thai restaurant you have been dying to visit? First of all, your expectations will almost always run ahead of reality. Look, the seafood tom yam only tastes as amazing as all the online reviews say it is because no one wants to admit that the restaurant is more hot air than hot soup. In any event, I get a 100% discount on all the stuff I do not buy online. So really, who is getting the better deal here?

Besides, can you even imagine the security threats you face the moment you and your friends log onto the free WiFi hotspot? No, of course you cannot. So, let me put it this way: free WiFi hotspots are the smartphone equivalent of public toilets. If you are on free WiFi, there is every chance you are not the only one using your phone to stalk your crush’s Instagram profile. Worse still, your phone will probably pick up a nasty bug without you even knowing. Before you know it, your brand spanking new RM4,000 smartphone is teeming with malicious programmes. Now ask yourself, was it really worth buying that voucher for cheap Thai food?

And can somebody please tell me when exactly did we all agree that online banking and paying for things via our smartphones is a good thing? As a budding conspiracy theorist, I can tell you that convenience is wildly overrated. What’s more, in today’s materialistic and consumption-driven society, I for one think we should be putting up barriers to performing online payments, not tearing them down!

Whenever I ask people whether they have proper, paid-for antivirus software installed on their smartphones, they often respond with a blank stare or a look of incredulity and say, “But isn’t that only meant for PCs and laptops?” I try to tell them that, “No, you absolutely need to install a full suite of antivirus software for your smartphone, especially if you are going to use it to pay for things.” And what do I get in return for my free unsolicited advice? Glazed looks and non-committal nods. But that is okay because when they start complaining about mystery charges appearing on their credit card bills or suddenly being locked out of their seven e-wallets, there is nothing I can do to prevent myself from looking smug.

“But who could possibly want to hack my accounts? I am a nobody and it is not as if I have millions in the bank.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some variation of this excuse. It betrays a serious lack of understanding about the different types and purposes of hacking. Of course, if criminals were all purists who yearned for the good old days of offline robbery, it would only make economic sense for them if they maximised the take from each job. Hackers, on the other hand, do not need to steal millions from one person, when they can steal 10 cents from 10 million people. Under these circumstances, your e-wallets and mobile banking accounts are viable targets.

Now that I have sufficiently scared you into paying attention, here is another piece of advice. In addition to mobile-based antivirus software, consider investing in a half-decent virtual private network (VPN) subscription service. There are desktop and mobile versions.

Basically, a VPN service allows you to create a secure connection to the websites that you visit. It can be used to access restricted websites (something the previous government may have known a thing or two about), as well as hide your browsing activity from snoopers on public WiFi hotspots. So, if you absolutely must engage in this so-called “e-commerce” fad, a VPN service will prevent prying eyes from observing this. Buyer beware, however, as not all countries allow VPN services. In fact, it is illegal to use in certain foreign regimes. Happily, though, it is perfectly legal here in Malaysia.  

As for me, my VPN service is activated every time I boot up my laptop. I would never dream of purchasing a product online or paying a bill via e-banking without first logging into it. At the end of the day, I am only too happy to pay for the added peace of mind, and you should be too.