Staying safe on the internet is of paramount concern for every computer user, private or commercial, young or old. Whether you’re worried about the privacy of your data, cyber scams, stalking or identity theft, there’s plenty to go wrong if you’re not vigilant.
Of course, not all of us are computer experts, so it’s understandable that security breaches can easily occur as a result of ignorance or naivety rather than laziness. But be warned: ignore internet safety at your peril. Here are 6 steps you should be taking to protect yourself online.
- Choose strong, unique passwords
It is a sad fact of the digital age that services get hacked all the time, often with the result of leaking entire databases of passwords into the public domain.
Your online accounts are only as safe as the passwords that protect them. It should go without saying that the more obvious the password – 123456, password, qwerty, letmein and trustno1 all feature highly on the list of worst ever passwords – the easier it will be to hack into your account. And if you use the same password for several accounts (and let’s face it, many of us do), the damage will be even greater.
The best way to protect your data is to have a different password for each account. Granted, it’s a major pain in the proverbial but it’s nothing compared to having your credit card account hacked or your identity used for fraudulent activities. Setting up unique passwords for all of your accounts is a major undertaking, and it’s impossible to remember all of them. This is where a password manager is an essential tool to help you keep track of them.
You may be tempted to use a password that’s easy to remember, based on personal information, but this is not recommended. Instead, make sure you use a random mixture of letters (upper and lower case), numbers a special characters to form a password that is at least 8 characters long.
- Use two-step verification wherever possible
As an extra layer of security in addition to the usual password, many companies now offer two-step verification or two-factor authentication before you can log on to your account. You may be issued with a special keypad, or receive a security log in code by text message or use a special app to prove access to a second ‘trusted’ device. This process makes it very difficult for someone to gain access to your account even if they are in possession of your password.
Of course, it is still possible to hack into an account but the harder you make it for cyber burglars to invade your private space, the more they are likely to give up and try somewhere easier. Your home will never be as secure as Fort Knox but that doesn’t mean you should leave your front door unlocked!
Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr are just some of the services now offering two-step verification. Do make sure you have it enabled on each of the services that you use.
- Enable automatic software updates
Software updates keep you safe from known security holes. Most hacks target software with known weaknesses, such as old software versions. New software releases have change logs and update notes that reveal previously known exploits that have been patched, making it easy for malicious users to gain access to your systems.
Your operating system, web browser and content management system is particularly at risk and should always be kept up to date. The best way to do this is to enable automatic software updates on your devices.
- Set up a VPN
A Virtual Private Network is a great way to protect yourself online, as it provides a great deal of security and privacy – as well as the many other benefits, such as gaining access to otherwise geographic-restricted content. By creating a secure connection to another network over the internet, your browsing activity is essentially hidden from everybody – except the VPN provider in some cases.
Once you have installed your chosen software (there are many, like these UK based VPNs) onto the device, it acts as though it is on the same local network as the software (VPN) itself. This adds a greater level of security as all of the traffic sent over the secure connection goes to the VPN, is encrypted – and allows you to securely access all kinds of otherwise restricted content – which may not available due to your geographic location, for example.
- Secure your mobile devices
If your smartphone or tablet was lost or stolen, you’d be suffering the expensive loss of a high tech handset, which is bad enough. But have you ever thought about the security implication of what would happen if your smartphone or tablet fell into the wrong hands? Do you secure your devices with a PIN number?
If your smartphone or tablet is unlocked, an unauthorised user could quickly gain access to all sorts of private accounts and personal information, and you would be laying yourself wide open to financial loss and identity theft. Most phones and tablets have a 6-digit PIN number setting that unlocks the device – make sure you enable it!
Every handset is different, but if you look for personal security options in the Settings Menu, you should be able to find it. For iPhone or iPad users, find TouchID & Passcode in Settings and turn passcode on. Adding a fingerprint is also highly recommended.
- Secure your laptop and desktop computers
Losing a mobile device would be a nightmare, but can you imagine the consequences of having your computer stolen? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Hard drive encryption is an essential step for any user looking to secure the data on their computer. It’s a process that goes beyond regular password security, ensuring that the hard drive remains safe and accessible to the user only. Your computer’s hard drive should be set to automatic encryption when it’s switched off. Turn on BitLocker in Windows, or FileVault on a Mac.
For a belts and braces solution, make sure you regularly back up your data onto an external hard drive. External USB hard drives don’t have to be expensive and can be left plugged in overnight. That way, if you lose your computer’s hard drive, the data is not lost and can be restored onto new hardware.