D.C. Is America's 'Riskiest' Online City

Skyrocketing use of smartphones and tablets helps make nation’s capital the #1 target for hackers.

Too many people online, with too much sensitive data being bandied about, makes many of America’s largest cities hotbeds of irresistible targets for hackers and data thieves. Based on a number of Internet usage factors, however, some cities have a higher cyber security risk than others according to the annual ranking of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. by online security firm Norton – and this year, there’s a new #1.

According to its analysis, Norton has named Washington, D.C., America’s Riskiest Online City for 2012, meaning residents of the nation’s capital are at the greatest risk for cyber attack and hacking compared to other citizens around the country. What makes it so risky inside the beltway? Norton’s rankings are based on the number of active Internet users in a metropolitan area, the amount of time they spend online, the types of Internet connections and operating systems used, and the sensitivity of the data transmitted. 

Previously, Seattle, WA, held the top spot in the study, primarily because of the dense concentration of high-tech firms (Microsoft, et al) in the area. The combination of Web-savvy residents spending endless hours online and corporate employees storing and sharing valuable company information made Seattle a tempting target for spyware hackers and numerous other online threats.

The same forces are at work in Washington, D.C., with government employees and contractors taking the place of high-tech workers, but there are two other factors that helped move D.C. to the infamous top spot.

One is the large number of publicly accessible Internet hotspots deployed throughout the city and the general lack of knowledge in internet safety. These unsecured Wi-Fi hot spots, often available at coffee shops, restaurants and other popular hangouts, typically rely on completely unsecured connections to the Internet that are easily visible to data snoopers and pose great threats to the people who use them. Norton considered D.C.’s availability of low-security hot spots together with the fact that a relatively large percentage of Washington residents engage in online banking and other sensitive Internet activity, such as logging into Facebook and other personal sites. According to the firm, hackers are drawn to this combination of low-hanging, highly valuable digital fruit - hence the high density of cybercrime attacks.

Also more prevalent in D.C., compared to other American cities, is the use of smartphones and tablets for Internet access on the go. These devices are considered the new frontier for cyber attackers as cyber security measures such as anti-virus and malware protection software is rarely installed on phones and tablets even though companies such as Norton offer free downloads across many different devices.  Plus, users often (incorrectly) consider themselves inherently immune to data theft and can easily become careless victims of cybercrime. In addition, use of unsecured public Wi-Fi is extremely popular with phone and tablet users to offset the high cost of excessive cellular data use.

All this combines to make Washington, D.C., at least in the eyes of Norton, the city in which residents are most likely to be targeted by hackers. On the other end of the spectrum, Detroit, MI, came in as the least risky of America’s 50 largest cities, thanks to relatively lower rates of Internet use and a dearth of public Wi-Fi hot spots.

Cybersecurity experts suggest these top safety tips to avoid becoming a victim of cybercrime:

  • Use unique passwords for each site. Do not duplicate passwords or use common phrases such as “password” or a birth date. Never synchronize login passwords as this makes hacking multiple accounts for one user a lot easier.
  • Beware of phishing on social networking sites. Due to the large numbers of people who use the sites, these sites are often targeted at a higher than average rate for phishing scams. Verify the URL being accessed letter by letter before entering any personal information.
  • Only access important information over a secured network. Those people banking from their laptop over coffee shop wifi are taking their financial life in their hands. Public wifi leaves the user open to the security risks of any passer by who has a computer. Using a secured network helps to cut down increasingly on the risk of spyware being installed or passwords being sniffed out.

Source: “Top 10 ‘Riskiest’ Online Cities of 2012 Presented by Norton