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Can You Hack-Proof Your Personal Email Address?

Can You Hack-Proof Your Personal Email Address?
November 17, 2017

How would you feel if the digital “you” were deleted? The common wisdom in cybersecurity circles is that if you think it can’t happen to you, it probably will. Consider Mat Honan’s story.

“First my Google account was taken over, then deleted,” Honan wrote. “Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages.” Honan’s AppleID was used to remotely delete all the data on his iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.

“My accounts were daisy-chained together,” Honan confessed. Sound familiar? Most people have to authenticate via daisy-chain. Even if you have everything segregated and use multi-factor authentication, chances are good that your personal email address is used to log in to most of the places you go online.

If a hacker gains access to your personal email account and, like most people, you’re lax when it comes to personal cyber hygiene, it could be game over for you—not only with regard to your data, but for whatever assets and accounts you manage online.

Can Your Personal Email Be Hack-Proofed? 

The short answer is no. Hacks and data breaches are the third certainty in life, right behind death and taxes. In fact, the most likely reason you haven’t been hacked yet is that there is a staggering number of sitting ducks out there. Needless to say, however, there is no safety in numbers. Hackers become more efficient all the time. 

While there is no silver bullet to our collective vulnerability, brothers Steve and Robert Yoskowitz think they might be able to help with Joinesty, a Chicago-based digital security startup that recently released an interesting Chrome extension.

Like LastPass and other password managers, Joinesty allows users to change passwords for everything they access online. Login credentials are automatically generated and easy to manage.

What makes Joinesty different is that they also let users create unique email addresses (to be forwarded in real time or delivered in daily digest form) for everything they access online, thereby shielding their personal email address from prying eyes.

In addition to email management, Joinesty lets users know about deals that are available at over 7,500 merchants in real time.

“The feature injects into Google so users can see what deals are available within their search results,” CFO and co-founder Steve Yoskowitz told me. “As cybersecurity and privacy become everyday and every-person concerns, we are trying to create an environment of security appealing to a demographic which may not know how much they need it, while targeting the interactions and online behavior that expose users the most.”

Before you decide that Joinesty is an advertising vehicle disguised as a cybersecurity solutions company, I asked about revenue, which is subscription based. Users can choose between monthly or annual subscriptions at $6.99 a month or $41.99 a year.

“The pillars of the Joinesty brand are trust, transparency, and simplicity,” Yoskowitz told me.  “We structured every aspect of our platform around these pillars, including our revenue model.”

Why Personal Email Addresses?

Nobody needs a disquisition on the dangers of using the same password for different accounts and services, though the number of consumers who still do it is alarming.

Instead, how about a quick lecture: According to one recent survey, more than 80% of people 18 and older re-use the same password across multiple accounts. The most popular password in 2016 was “123456.” For less than $1,000, hackers can buy a machine that has the capacity to test billions of passwords per second. Effect: You are vulnerable. Password managers work, so use one. (End of sermon.)

Actually, it’s not quite the end of the sermon. Because lousy password hygiene is so prevalent, you need to know if your personal email address been leaked in a data breach or, better yet, just assume that it has been. Haveibeenpwned.com is one place to go if you’re curious.

Personal email addresses present a huge vulnerability for most people and an infinite number of clear-sky lines of attack for hackers.

A recent data sample found that in the United States there are an average of 130 accounts assigned to a single email address. We’re talking about newsletters, e-commerce site, banks, gyms, portals to your medical records and healthcare coverage, investments, car loans, credit cards, and—as Matt Honan knows all-too-painfully well—social networking sites.

Your personal email address is one of your most visible forms of personally identifiable information (PII), and yet many websites require it. If your email is commandeered, whoever has control of it is just a few clicks away from taking control of your finances and anything else they might care to target. Think of your email address as a much less secure version of your Social Security number—especially if you have bad password habits.

I asked Yoskowitz about the use of personal email addresses as a login credential. After a quick scan of the top 210 Quantcast sites, he found that only 26 had no login. “Two had a username—instead of email—for logging in, so roughly 86% currently require email for login,” Yoskowitz told me.

Fewer Opportunities to Click and Get Got

So, is Joinesty addressing the personal email problem or taking advantage of it? Does the solution open up new vulnerabilities? Is this merely a ploy to sell ads and profit off our collective cyber-insecurity? 

The first thing you need to know is that Joinesty offers something of value.

It is not tokenization per se, but it’s like it in that Joinesty replaces PII (in this case your personal email address) with equally valid but non-identifiable data.

“We retain the purposes and benefits of tokenization allowing the user to retain all the functionality of giving out their personal email—logging into their accounts, receiving deals—without that email address having any inherent value to hackers because of its unique one-off nature.” 

Parting shot from my book Swiped: When creating an account on sites that allow a non-email login name, let your spirit fly. Be creative (but store it somewhere on a cheat sheet that resides on an encrypted memory stick). You might even consider using a long-and-strong password as your login name if the site will allow it.

Adam Levin is chairman and founder of CyberScout, and cofounder of Credit.com, where this article originally appeared.

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