You may be disappointed.
This is a variation of an extremely common response to some of my answers.
You want to know if you’re safe. I get that.
You won’t like the answer.
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Am I safe?
“Am I safe?” can only be answered “No,” because absolute safety is not possible. Instead, as you use technology and navigate online, focus on what it means to be as safe as is possible.
No such thing
There’s no such thing as “safe” on the internet.
Absolute safety doesn’t exist.
You may be safer than before, or you may be less safe, but there is no pinnacle of safety that allows you to say “Now I’m done. I’m safe.”
That is true for many reasons; here are five of them.
Can’t prove a negative
I can’t prove your machine isn’t infested with malware. I can’t prove my machine isn’t infested with malware.
Even though you and I have done all the things — all the right things, even — to keep ourselves secure and safe and free of malware, there’s no way to prove that we were successful.
Logicians would tell you that you can’t prove a negative. I would tell you that malware is all about a race — a race between malware creators and anti-malware tools — and that the creators are always in the lead. There’s always something new that your anti-malware tool hasn’t yet been updated to catch.
And there’s no way to prove that it’s not already on your machine.
The state of your machine
Even after addressing all the things to deal with a problem, it’s very possible your machine has other things going on that would render it more vulnerable than you and I might realize.
The steps you take to resolve a problem might be appropriate if your machine is in good working order, but they might also be completely ineffective if your machine has other, underlying problems. Once again, there’s no way to know, with absolute certainty, that that isn’t the case.
For example, you might successfully remove all the keyloggers in your system without realizing there’s a hardware keylogger that would never be detected by the steps you’ve taken. Or perhaps your wireless keyboard is using an older transmission protocol that’s not appropriately secure, and thus is easily captured from nearby equipment without ever touching your computer.
Those kinds of “underlying problems” can easily mean that you’re not safe no matter what you do.
I try to make my instructions as clear as possible, but I know I don’t always succeed.
Many manufacturers make what I kindly refer to as a “questionable” attempt at making their instructions clear and easy to follow. The same is true wherever you find answers to your questions.
Even the clearest instructions are pointless if they’re not followed carefully.
And once again, I can’t tell if you’ve followed the instructions properly, or if the instructions you followed were appropriate.
I could be wrong
I make mistakes. Even if I understand your situation as best I can and provide information that’s as up-to-date and as correct as I can possibly make it, I could be wrong.
I’m fallible. Even if there were such a thing as perfect safety (there isn’t), I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to claim I could lead you to it.
It could be something else
I’ve often commented that computers, software, and the internet are all so complex and convoluted that it’s amazing they work at all.
Seriously. It’s a daily miracle.
But given that things are as complicated as they are, it’s silly to suggest that there might not be something else lurking in the shadows to compromise our safety.
Is safety futile?
Striving for safety is critical.
“Am I safe?” is an absolute statement with no room for anything else. It’s completely impossible. It’s a pointless question.
Questions like “Am I mostly safe?”, “Am I 95% safe?”, “Am I safer than I was before?” are all realistic and valid.
“Am I as safe as I need to be?” is perhaps the most important question of all.
The answer to that question determines whether you can use your technology with confidence or if you need to take additional steps to improve your safety and security. The answer depends on how you use your technology, what steps you’ve taken to be secure, and whether or not you feel you’re experiencing any security-related issues.
Ask the right question.
Take the steps you need to take to stay as safe and secure as you can.
Review “Internet Safety: 7 Steps to Keeping Your Computer Safe on the Internet” for the basics of how to stay safe.
And subscribe to Confident Computing for even more. Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
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12 comments on “Am I Safe?”
How does one find the wireless protocol used by say, a wireless mouse. And then, how to figure out if it is using an old and “unsafe” protocol.
Is there much additional “danger” using a wireless mouse than already using up to date wireless connectivity to the router?
Further research on this led me to a ComputerWorld article on “mousejack” that concerns me even more now.
It seems that any wireless item can be easily mousejacked.
I am thankful I am so uninteresting, but just in case I will go back to using a wired mouse.
Wireless keyboards and mice require that the attacker be relatively close. It’s not something I worry about at all.
Thanks Leo. If you don’t worry, we won’t.
You live so far from civilization, you’re 99.9% safe even without a WiFi password :-) .
I live in an apartment with about a half a dozen wireless networks visible and my WiFi reached to the bus stop in front of my house. I have to take more precautions.
(I live on 5 acres.) Surprisingly, however, I can see many of my neighbors Wi-Fi hotspots. I have to assume they can see mine.
I can see about 20 WiFi hotspots, including a hidden one. I need to assume that they all can see my WiFi.
Given that the passphrase that I use is over 22 characters long, I think that I’m pretty safe on that front.
The only way to be (quote) “safe” (endquote) with a computer, is to stay strictly offline: No Internet, period end of sentence.
I put the word “safe” here in quotes because even then, you’re not completely safe from possibly (even if very unlikely) making some dumb stupid mistake that potentially turns your computer into an extremely expensive and highly complicated silicon doorstop. :o
There are things like USB sticks you can plug in. A pal of mine bought a very cheap bulk order from China. Each one was loaded with malware.
Oh, you’re such a pessimest. Thank You! Keep ’em coming.
I consider myself quite the optimist, really. Perhaps “realist” might be more accurate.
Yes, but if someone “new” reads your articles week after week they’ll get the impression that the computer/internet sky falling and we’re all going to be hacked to death. It’s really not that bad.