How to protect your personal information on the web

Hacking in to your secret files

It seems at least once a month a major company is announcing that it was hacked. Target, Sony and Home Depot have all been attacked in the past year. So, if large companies with dedicated teams are being hacked what can you do to help protect yourself? This guide will walk you through some best practices to help keep you and your data secure.

Use a Password Manager

A password manager randomly generates all of your passwords for websites and locks them behind a single password that only you know. This means you only have to remember a single password. So instead of trying to remember a different password (or gasp if you’re using the same password on many sites) for each site, you just need to know one password and the manager will create a strong password for the rest of your sites. A few services to check out include, but are not limited to, LastPass, DashPass, KeePass and 1Password. All of them will do the job; however, the fees and the interfaces differ from service to service so check them out and see which one fits your needs the best.

Use Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication is available on most major websites these days. Essentially, it's a simple feature that asks for more than your password. Think of it like your ATM card: it requires something you know (your pin) and something you have (the card). For example, to log into your Google account, you'd need to type in your password, wait for Google to send you a text message with a code, and then type that in before you could access your account on a new machine. That new machine is now christened and you will only now need to know the password going forward as Google now recognizes that new machine. Now if a hacker tries to get access to your account they would need to steal either your phone and password or your PC and password. Both are a lot less likely than just discovering your password.

Be Wary of Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi is great as it's normally free, keeps down your data cap on your phone, and generally is quicker than your mobile connection. However, all of these benefits come with a downside. While you are on a public network everyone else on that network does have the ability to get in to your computer or reroute your web requests to another location. Think of it this way, when you use your private home network it's like sitting down and talking to a loan officer in a private room. It's just you and that loan officer. Where as when using public Wi-Fi you're in a flea market with other people all around you. While most people go along their business in that market there could be pickpockets looking to steal your wallet as well as people listening in to your conversation. Not the safest place to do anything you want to keep secure. However, if you constantly need to use public Wi-Fi follow the following tips.

  • Use sites with HTTPS: HTTPS (has a lock icon in the address bar) is like using a private booth in the flea market. This will keep your web traffic secure between you and the site you are working with.
  • Use a VPN service: Since not all sites utilize HTTPS you can also use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service to encrypt your data so that others cannot get access to it. Keeping with the flea market analogy if using HTTPS is using a private booth at one reseller a VPN service is like having a mobile private booth with you everywhere you go.
  • Turn off sharing: When you're at home you might share your files with other people on your network. That's great, but you don't want that on public Wi-Fi. Disable it before you even connect. In Windows, open Control Panel, then head to Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center. Then click Choose Homegroup and Sharing Options > Change Advanced Settings. Turn off file sharing, print sharing, network discovery, and the public folder. On Mac, open System Preferences > Sharing, and make sure all the boxes are unchecked.

Use Antivirus/Malware software

Whenever antivirus software is mentioned, someone always seems to chime up and say they don't need an antivirus because they're careful. This isn't true. No matter how smart you think you are, you can still benefit from an antivirus on Windows. Vulnerabilities are found and sold to organized crime with alarming frequency, even the most careful of users are vulnerable.

Clicking on a malicious link isn't the only way to get infected as well. There are vulnerabilities in Windows, Macs, web browsers and plug ins that allow bad guys to get access to your computer. Using antivirus software is like the last line of defense. Using safe practices such as not clicking unknown links and downloading applications from questionable sources are always preferred; however, as we are human we will make a mistake eventually and this is where antivirus software comes in.

A common complaint for antivirus is that it slows down your computer to the same degree as the malware. This was certainly true in the past; however, computers have increased speed and better programs have been written so this is no longer the case. The free Windows Defender on Windows 8 and 10 are lightweight antivirus programs created by Microsoft. At a bare minimum these will keep out the most common threats. For a more secure solution there is Norton, Kaspersky, AVG, MacAfee, and other services that are on a yearly subscription. As these are a paid service there is more incentive to ensure they are up to date at keeping your computer safe and running smoothly. They will generally have more options and controls to keep you safe without too many popups and warnings when you try to download the latest picture of your mom's kitten on Facebook.

Wrap Up

While the Internet is one of the greatest inventions of our time it can also be one of the most dangerous. We put our lives online through online banking, emails, Facebook, online shopping, and all of these great benefits of the Internet come with a cost. Without properly protecting yourself from those who want your information you can be the victim of a corrupted computer, stolen credit cards, or even identity theft. Knowledge is power and with this power keep yourself safe to enjoy all the Internet has to offer.

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