With all the high-profile hacks, data breaches and malware (“malicious software”) in the news these days, you might be afraid to step a virtual foot into cyberspace.
The answer isn’t to avoid the Internet altogether – something that would be almost impossible today, anyway – but rather, you can take a few simple steps to ensure you and your data are as safe as they can be.
And no, you don’t need to be a computer engineer to bump up your online security.
The following are a handful of tips to help you get started.
1. Use antimalware software
Now that security software is bundled in Windows 8, not to mention many free versions available at C|Net’s Download.com, there really isn’t an excuse for not having an antimalware solution installed on your computer, which includes antivirus, antispyware, a firewall, and more.
Free services are better than none at all, of course, but there are much more robust online security solutions for about $40 a year – such as those offered by Symantec, McAfee and Kaspersky – that can detect, quarantine and remove more threats than free antimalware alternatives (plus they tend to catch a wider variety of malware, too). Paid services are usually updated more often, so you’re always protected from the latest threats, and are updated automatically rather than you having to remember to download the latest virus definitions.
Mac users, you aren’t out of the woods just because Mac attacks are more rare: you also need security software these days.
2. Password management
Creating a good password isn’t difficult, but it does take more time to come up with one than using common ones like “password,” “123456” or your kids’ or pet’s names – all of which are not recommended for obvious reasons. A strong password is at least 7 characters long, has a combination of letters, numbers and symbols and mixes upper and lower cases. It’s also a good idea to avoid real words or phrases.
And here’s an important tip: never, ever use the same password for all of your online activities — after all, once someone finds out one password, they’ve got the digital keys to unlock everything else of yours.
If you don’t want to use the recommended combination of letters, numbers and symbols, at least keep in mind single word passwords are easier to break than multiple word passwords. Instead of “walrus,” use something like “redwalrus” or “sillyredwalrusface.” Alternatively, use the first letter from a phrase – say, from a favourite song – so Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop (feat. Wanz) becomes “MRLTSFW.” This should be an easy password to remember – and better yet, add a number and symbol to this, too.
3. Opt for two-step authentication
Major tech companies like Google, Facebook and more recently, Apple, now offer a two-step authentication process. This serves as an extra security measure to protect your online accounts from being compromised. It confirms you – and only you – are granted access to your account.
How does it work? As the name “two-step authentication” suggests, in addition to a standard username and password you’ll also need a code that’s sent usually via text message to your mobile phone. Before you gain access to the site or app, you’ll be prompted to enter that short, randomly-generated verification code.
If this sounds too onerous, don’t worry. You can choose to have each computer you use secured once with this system, or if you prefer, you can be asked each and every time. Either way, you’ll be less likely to have your account compromised.
Instead of a text message, Google users can also download and install the Google Authenticator app on your Android, iPhone or BlackBerry.
4. Be cautious on Wi-Fi hotspots
Whether it’s at your favourite coffee shop, in an airport or a hotel lobby, millions of mobile computer users take advantage of the free public Wi-Fi networks – often referred to as “hotspots.” But there are a few tips for safer surfing.
Some Wi-Fi networks can appear to be legitimate — like an official McDonald’s hotspot or a Hilton hotel’s wireless network — when in fact they’re a fake. Nearby criminals, perhaps in a van outside, can create “rogue” networks that often contain the name of the store, hotel or airport, but actually will direct your information to their own computer. Before logging on, double-check it’s legit by confirming the network name at the establishment.
Always assume your Wi-Fi connections are being eavesdropped on. That is, if you’re surfing the web on your computer, smartphone or tablet at a coffee shop, do simple things like read the news. Don’t enter sensitive data – like online banking info — when browsing the web via a Wi-Fi network. In other words, why take the risk? If you can, also download and use free VPN (virtual private network) software, like Hotspot Shield to surf anonymously.
Another option is to bring your own network and resist the free Wi-Fi altogether. Specifically, all wireless carriers sell Internet sticks (sometimes referred to as “Turbo” or “Rocket” sticks) that snap into your laptop’s USB port and lets you access the Internet via cellular connectivity. Or you might turn your smartphone into a personal hotspot to get online, but be aware of data costs.
5. Talk to your kids about online security
Online security is all about common sense – so even if kids are more technical than mom and dad you can still remind them that many of the same “real world” do’s and don’ts are relevant on the Internet.
The first tip is to be cautious about posting and sharing personal information online — such as places like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram — especially information that could be used to identify you or locate you offline, such as your address, telephone number, what school you go to. Don’t post on your wall about a trip you’re excited about or you’re broadcasting the fact your home will be empty for a while. Also be cautious about what kinds of photos you’re posting, in case they reveal personal info such as a photo of you in front of your school or where you play soccer every week.
In fact, encourage kids to limit their social media use to friends only. Remind them that Twitter is always public. It’s not a popularity contest to see how many “friends” you have on Facebook.
Kids should be reminded not to give our their password to friends – a 2012 U.S. study found this is more common than you might think – as a best friend one day could be a bitter enemy the next.