Image: Man with laptop © Ken Seet, SuperStock

Related topics: financial privacy, identity theft, cell phones, fraud, electronics

Consumers and politicians alike have been appalled by the prospect that Apple has the ability to keep tabs on users' locations via a hidden iPhone file.

The furor may distract from more nefarious threats, though. Industry experts say that last year 286 million types of malware were responsible for more than 3 billion attacks on computer users, while software guarding against those attacks generally catches only 60% of what it comes up against.

Although there may be no 100% guaranteed strategy for beating hackers and stopping snoopers, there are some simple safeguards to put in place:

Focus on security

Every day, millions of people post pictures of their kids, vacations and family events online. Most are unaware of the wealth of data that can easily be extracted.

Digital photos contain an "EXIF" (Exchangeable Image File Format) data file that stores information about the image -- much of it fairly innocuous. A simple browser plug-in (or standard photo viewers) can tell what shutter speed and aperture was used, the date and time a photo was created and even if a flash was used.

The danger comes from higher-end cameras and photos taken with cellphones and smartphones. These can add GPS information and geo-tagging that provides an exact longitude and latitude of where the picture was taken. A quick trip to Google Maps can zero in on the exact address. In some cases -- although usually if it's done intentionally by professional photographers -- a full name and phone number can be embedded.

All that information is a boon to potential stalkers and a quick way to ruin the anonymity of a blogger. Combined with personal information offered on such sites as Twitter, FourSquare and Gowalla, the use of EXIF data can be an invitation to burglars and other evildoers. National security can even be compromised, as is detailed in a report issued by the Pentagon that warned personnel against inadvertently revealing troop positions.

There are two basic ways to protect yourself. One is to disable the geo-tagging feature in your smartphone, a task that can be as easy or complicated as your particular manufacturer makes it. (The website I Can Stalk offers guides for many popular brands.)

You can also strip EXIF data from photos using Microsoft's Picture Viewer in Windows (right-click to "properties," and click on "remove properties and personal information"). Apple's OS similarly enables the removal of data, as does the popular editing software Adobe Photoshop.

Dupe of URL

In its April Internet Security Threat Report, Symantec pointed out that "social network platforms continue to grow in popularity, and this popularity has not surprisingly attracted a large volume of malware."

"One of the primary attack techniques used on social-networking sites involved the use of shortened URLs," it says. These shortened website addresses serve as an alternative to long, unwieldy links, but can hide a website's real location and be used to trick victims into phishing and malware attacks.

"In a typical scenario, the attacker logs into a compromised social-networking account and posts a shortened link to a malicious website in the victim's status area," the report says. "The social-networking site then automatically distributes the link to news feeds of the victim's friends, spreading the link to potentially hundreds or thousands of victims in minutes."