America got mail this weekend, about 30 emails, according to reports. They were written as recently as last year by then-Governor Mike Pence and sent from his personal AOL account. While this is a political story, it is not about politics. It’s about a nationwide problem.
The emails, released to the Indianapolis Star in response to a public records request, include state business. The revelation is that Pence used his private email account to conduct business—an account we now know categorically was not secure from the prying eyes of hackers since, per various reports, it sent out emails saying Pence had been robbed overseas and was in need of money to get back home, a classic email scam you’ve no doubt heard of.
Pence's Email Problems
The emails released by the Indy Star were addressed to Pence’s chief of staff and also his homeland security officer. As such, they open a window into Pence’s tenure as governor where there shouldn’t be one. Emails discussed political issues—like the resettlement of Syrian refugees—and other sensitive matters.
The news immediately resulted in public parades of schadenfreude on the left. After all, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arguably lost the election because of the same issue. But while there is plenty to make fun of here, there really is very little in the way of relevance between the two email stories.
While there have been more detailed tales of the tape between the two stories, you only need to know that former Secretary of State Clinton did something, that while legal, was strongly discouraged by her employer, the State Department, and what Pence did was under no such strictures— a sentiment Pence and his press secretary echoed in statements to the press. (Pence could not be reached for comment by Credit.com.)
What Pence & Clinton Have in Common With You
This latest email snafu is about control, but not over the flow of information, secrets or privileged access to information. It’s actually about an alarming lack of control. That lack of control has to be laid at the feet of information security experts who are tasked with keeping us safe.
We can do amazing things in the realm of coding, but somehow a fix to the phishing pandemic continues to elude us. The main reason for this is at least understandable: It’s a crime that preys on human nature—something that can’t be (reliably) coded.
Vice President Pence did what millions of us do every day. He clicked on a link in a phishing email, the victim of garden-variety social engineering. In doing so, he did us a favor, though it’s doubtful he will get much credit for it. He highlighted an area where our nation needs to do way more. Phishing is a national epidemic, and we all need to worry about it. If leaders of the free world can fall for this scam, so can you.
What's Phishing and How Can I Avoid It?
Phishing emails spoof legitimate companies or contacts in an attempt to get the recipient to click on a fraudster’s link. As I wrote about in my book, Swiped, you can probably spot a phishing email in your sleep, and you would no sooner click on a link in an email about suspicious activity on your bank account than you would leave your wallet in a crosswalk in Times Square.
However, best practices often fly out the window when it comes to salacious material about our favorite celebrities. Think about it this way: As you wander in the darker alleys and backstreets of the internet, where the risks should outweigh all other considerations, are you willing to forego sensible web behavior when the likely outcome will be catastrophic?
The main threat is malware. You can expect it to wind up on your computer if you decide to search the less safe parts of the internet for material that was never meant for your eyes anyway.
It may be something simple, like code that turns your computer into a spam distribution center, or a more serious app that will record your keystrokes (including when you log in to your bank, email, social networking, brokerage accounts, or the gubernatorial back office). There’s no way to know what you’re getting yourself into. The best course of action is to use your imagination—or possibly even your sense of what should be off-limits. Malware leads to identity theft and worse.
If you tend to chase breaking news stories and like to download the ephemera related to them (eyewitness photographs, blog posts), you may want to do a malware scan of your computer.
As a matter of fact, this kind of scanning should be a part of your habit of monitoring your various points of contact with the outside world—your attackable surface—regularly for signs of intrusion. (You can also monitor two of your free credit scores for foul play every two weeks on Credit.com.)
The lack of cybersecurity acumen manifested in the phishing of a governor should serve as a cautionary tale for everyone. Unless you are never off your guard, it’s highly likely that you will get scammed. The solution to the phishing pandemic is nowhere in sight. Be careful because the light at the end of the tunnel could well be the headlight of a bullet train.
Adam Levin is chairman and founder of CyberScout and Credit.com, where this article originally appeared. It is an Op/Ed contribution and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.