By George Otte
The cyber-threat landscape has never been more complicated. And, as our digital and analog selves inexorably combine, the risks to our personal and financial security have never been greater.
However, this isn’t cause for despair — merely increased vigilance. Simply by taking the time to educate yourself about the most common threats to your digital security, and taking commonsense steps to protect yourself online and offline, you’ll find yourself ahead of the majority of your peers.
Not sure where to start? As we move into 2017, use these five simple “hacks” — many of which are explained in detail in this excellent Laptop Magazine article — to protect your digital assets.
1. Confirm Network Identity Before Connecting
First things first. If your device is configured to automatically connect to open WiFi networks (a common setting on mobile devices) in public, turn that capability off.
Think of WiFi connectivity like a job interview: you always want the leverage. That leverage is lost the moment you connect to an open WiFi network, at which point your computer (and all the devices, passwords, and personal information to which it’s connected) becomes vulnerable to malicious actors who may want to do you harm.
Next, before you connect to a network, confirm that it’s the correct one. Clever hackers sometimes camp out in public areas (coffee shops, hotel lobbies) and set up “dummy” networks that resemble trusted local networks. For instance, “Peet’s Coffee Guest” might be a safe, sanctioned, fully secured network; “Peet’s Coffee WiFi” might be a dummy network designed to catch careless surfers. When in doubt, ask trusted staff members.
2. Use a VPN
There are plenty of reasons to take steps to conceal your identity and location while surfing the web. In fact, cybersecurity experts make a convincing case that everyone should take this step, absent specific rationales against doing so (for instance, triggering location-specific shopping deals). Look for paid VPNs that always safeguard your identity — though free options exist, they’re generally not as secure, and reliable protection is worth a few dollars per month.
3. Control Your Sharing Settings
If you regularly use your computer in public, restrict your sharing settings so that your computer is only visible to trusted machines in private networks. Otherwise, everything on your computer (including passwords and financial data) could be visible to potential cyber-criminals.
4. Protect Your Passwords (And Use More Than One!)
Password protection is absolutely critical. Millions of consumers continue to use easily cracked passwords such as “password1” or their first and last names to protect sensitive data: bank and credit card logins, tax returns, health records.
Don’t fall into this seductive trap. Use unique passwords for every login, so that a breach in one part of your digital life doesn’t affect the rest. Don’t store these passwords online, where they’re vulnerable to hackers; instead, write them down and place them in a secure location (ideally a fireproof box) or use an encrypted cloud storage service.
5. Invest in an Anti-Virus
Anti-virus software can’t detect and neutralize every threat, but it’s certainly better than leading your system totally unprotected. The best systems offer comprehensive protection against the many forms of malware, plus additional security measures for sensitive activities (such as logging into bank websites). Your peace of mind is worth the annual cost.
Is Total Protection Possible?
Following these tips and taking additional precautions to safeguard your digital life can certainly increase your chances of protecting yourself against many cyber threats, but unfortunately not all. After all, cybersecurity is complicated: for every neutralized threat, a new one appears in its place.
Some may ask why we bother to take protective measures at all. Fair question. Optimists know that basic protective action can both dramatically reduce the risk of damaging breaches and shorten recovery time when they do occur. Simply by being prepared for the unknown, you’re in a better position than most of your peers.