These days it seems like you can’t go a day without hearing that one company or another has had a data breach. While company problems are not necessarily the same as those on your home computer, they highlight an increased need for security. But where does security start?
There are a few programs that will help keep your data safe on your computer, but before you go downloading a bunch of things, there are some behavioral changes that can make a huge difference in the security of your computer and information. Good habits are essential to maintaining a safe environment inside of technology.
Wait, Don’t Click That!
In a world of popup blockers and anti-virus software, it might see pretty safe to cruise around the net looking at just about anything. But that hasn’t stopped the bad guys from disguising otherwise safe looking text or pictures as links to some seriously dangerous malware. Before you go following that next link, take a few steps to make sure it’s okay.
First, try to use reputable websites. If you’re on the third or fourth page of Google search results, you may want to be much more careful about where you navigate. But there’s an easy trick for that: simply read the actual URL address on the bottom of your browser. Whatever the picture or text says, the actual address will always show when you hold your mouse over the link.
If you’re using a smartphone, it’s a little trickier; hyperlinks are not something you can simply hover over and check, so it’s important to be more alert as to where you’re taking the link from. In case you did click on something though…
Don’t Open Pandora’s Box
You may have followed a link to somewhere unfamiliar by accident, but that doesn’t mean you’re in trouble—yet. In many cases, malware will actually ask if you want to save it to your computer (it won’t be named “virus.exe.”) If you did click an email or website link, and it asks to save, be sure you were really looking to save a file.
If you are planning to save it, don’t select the “Open” option unless you’re absolutely certain about that file. Supposing grandma sends you an email and that email reads “check on these pics” with a link, you may not want to go ahead and open whatever tries to save from that; doesn’t exactly sound like something grandma would be saying (unless your grandma is super hip or something).
However, there will be times where you do save a suspicious file on your computer. If so…
Get An Anti-Virus
Yes, yes, your computer probably came with one, but is that one really any good? Perhaps you have a pre-installed version of McAfee or Norton—on a 30 day trial. The moment that trial ends, you’re held essentially at gunpoint to buy their software or face the doom of not having protection on your machine.
Well, most good anti-virus software is free for regular users. That means no entering CD keys, no registering for 1-year subscriptions on recurring payments, and no paying. Some good examples are Panda Free Antivirus, AVG, and Avast!. So, armed with one of these programs, you can actively scan any files you’ve downloaded to make sure that they’re safe. Most will do it automatically though.
Who’s there—right? Well, if you aren’t using the internet with a VPN, then chances are anyone and everyone knows whenever you stop in. While that might not seem like a problem, websites aren’t the only ones monitoring traffic: your ISP, hackers, and (tin foil hats on) even the government can tell who, when, and where you’ve been accessing from. And trust me… that Windows Firewall you have isn’t helping very much.
With a VPN, you’re connecting to a virtual server who then routes your data through an encryption pattern, making it impossible to say much about you; it’s the VPN that gets “tracked,” but since other people are also using that VPN, no one actually knows who is requesting the information. Many VPNs also have the added perk of allowing you to choose where to say you’re connecting from, which lets you access content that is sometimes restricted to select countries.
If you’re on a laptop, smartphone, or tablet, it’s really important: Wi-Fi networks are prime locations for people to steal your information. If you’re connected through a VPN, you can pretty much put that worry to bed, and if you happen to be traveling, you won’t run into problems accessing Hulu or something because “sorry you’re not in the US.”
Psst…What’s the Password?
I’m as guilty as anyone else on this, but it can be really difficult to keep making up good, unique passwords. Because of the sheer number of websites and apps we access today, each one asks for its own password—and each one has its own set of rules. What that usually leads to is the old, bad habit: reusing the same password, with slight variations as required by the password rules.
This basically means that the majority of passwords are something like: Password, password, password1, Password1; all are very easy to guess, and once someone figures out one password, it won’t be hard for them to figure out your other passwords too. A VPN helps a lot with this, because if someone does “hack” your password, they don’t necessarily know who to associate it with.
The best rule of thumb for passwords is to make them as long as you’re allowed: use phrases instead of actual words. A passphrase is far harder to guess, usually contains more characters (and is thus harder to brute force), and can be easier to remember than a single word. Try to use different phrases for different things you access, and if all else fails, keep a backup list of your passwords somewhere safe (a sticky note with all your passwords at your desk is probably not the most ideal location to store them!).
A final note on passwords: sometimes you’ll need to create “security questions” in case you forget your password. Birthdays and the names of schools you’ve attended (or anything you have on your social media account, for that matter) are terrible choices for security questions. Always go for something less obvious, like your first car or anything else that people you don’t like or know aren’t likely to figure out.
There are plenty of things you can do to make your use of technology safer. Whether it’s using helpful software, being mindful of your passwords, or having some discretion about where you navigate on the net, there is a single unifying point to be made about all of this. The one in charge if your security is not some company or foreign entity: it’s you.
No matter how many safeguards are added to technology, your own habits and behaviors will ultimately determine how secure your machines and data are. Sometimes it will mean you’ll need to actually read a few things, and other times it may mean containing your curiosity for the sake of your safety (ooh, I wonder where this link goes?).
Guest blog by Cassie Phillips
Cassie is a writer and blogger who specializes in website and internet security for Secure Thoughts