The internet is a wonderful thing. A few swipes of the finger are all that separate us from the largest assemblage of information in history. We can watch movies, order food, start our car, open the garage door, chat with friends on opposite ends of the globe, and look up that one actor’s cousin’s dog’s birthday all without having to get up from the couch.
However, for all the good the web brings, there’s also a lot of bad. Each device you connect to the web opens another door into your life. More doors mean more entrances for intruders. Then there’s the Dark Web, a large chunk of cyberspace lurking unseen like the submerged mass of an iceberg beneath the digital waves. The number one commodity: your data.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it: there is no such thing as being perfectly safe on the internet. Any device connected to the internet can be compromised. If large companies and highly-secured government agencies can be hacked into, so can you. The only way to prevent a hack is to cut yourself off from the internet entirely and live off the grid. I don’t know about you, but I need my daily dose of cat videos, so that’s not an option.
Since there’s no way to be completely safe, the best you can do is make it harder for the bad guys to get in. Here are some ways to minimize the chance your devices become compromised:
- Use complex passwords. I can hear your eye roll from here. Passwords are the bane of everyone’s existence, but they’re a common vulnerability exploited by hackers. A complex password is like a good, sturdy deadbolt on your front door. A simple password–e.g., any variation of the word ‘password’ – is like leaving your front door unlocked while you’re away on vacation.
- Change your passwords every few months. Complex passwords are good, but the longer they’re in place, the more time the bad guys have to crack them. Changing your password makes it less likely it will be cracked.
- Use two-step verification. No, I’m not trying to make your life more difficult. Two-step verification, or multi-factor authentication, requires two of the following pieces of information for a login: something you know (e.g., a password, a security question), something you have (e.g., a call/text to your phone, a security token), or who you are (e.g., a fingerprint, face recognition). This method, though not foolproof, is difficult to circumvent.
- Beware of suspicious emails. Another common entry point into a network is through email. You should by now know not to respond to the Nigerian prince asking for financial help. The latest trend is email spoofing: hackers spoof emails to make them appear as if they were sent from a superior. These emails often contain attachments which are nothing more than Trojan horses riddled with malware. If you receive an unexpected email from someone, especially one with an attachment, call the sender before opening the email to make sure they sent it. If they didn’t send it, delete the email immediately.
- Install updates. I know, I know, another roll of the eyes. But updates, at least most of them, are important. Many go toward patching holes in your software. Software is made up of thousands or even millions of lines of code. That code is written by humans who, as we are all well aware, are not perfect. Mistakes in the code can be exploited by hackers to gain access to your network or device. The more unpatched mistakes there are, the more ways a hacker has to infiltrate your system.
- Don’t use unprotected public wifi. ‘Free’ and ‘wifi’ are two of everyone’s favorite things, and put together they sound like a dream come true. The reality, though, is that they go as well together as tartar sauce and chocolate cake. Public networks, even protected ones, are prime stalking grounds for those with mal intent and are commonly scanned by hackers for unsuspecting prey. The wifi at Starbucks might be password-protected, but hackers are just as capable of asking the barista for the password as you are. Your best bet is to use a VPN. VPNs encrypt all traffic moving through them, adding a nearly impenetrable layer of defense from the bad guys.
- Back up your data. In the event a device does become compromised, you need a way to quickly restore your data. The best way to keep your things safe and readily accessible in the event of a disaster is to back up your stuff to the Cloud. There are myriad options available, including Apple’s iCloud, Google’s Drive, and Microsoft’s OneDrive.
- Use virus protection. Make sure your computer has virus protection. Don’t use free versions; free programs lack many of the important features that keep you safe. Products from Webroot, Norton, and McAfee are all good options.