7 Essential Tips for Personal Cybersecurity

Our digital lives are getting more and more important to our daily functions. Currently, you can do banking, shopping, retirement planning, communication, mortgage payments, etc. It is alarming that with such a dependency on these systems, we do not follow through with proper practices in cyber security. For most, it is difficult to keep your head above water.

This is why I threw this guide together, to help people struggling with incorporating good digital security practices into their lives. This is not a complete list, but will definitely help

 


1. Strong & Diverse Passwords

Strong Passwords

I used to think that no one would every guess my password that consisted of my street name combined with the year I was born. But then I started talking to people and noticed that these types of passwords were the norm, and with some clever guessing, I might be able to guess some of my friends' passwords based on things I know about them. First things first, do not use passwords that involve:

  • Street name(s) associated with you
  • Numbers that represent anything significant, such as birth date information, street address number, football number, etc.
  • Names of popular things like sports teams
  • Relatives' names
  • Simple words that can be easily guessed

If you avoid these, you are one GIANT step ahead of the curve. Passwords that use common words are REALLY REALLY BAD because that is what a first set of guesses would entail.

Diverse Passwords

When your passwords are strong, it makes it a lot harder to guess. Additionally, you should not use the same password everywhere, as it only takes one site/service/program to neglect their own security and leak your "super strong" password. Your password could be extremely difficult to guess, but if your password remains the same from Snapchat before 2014, your password has most likely been leaked in plaintext, meaning people could download the database of passwords and obtain the password for everything else. Passwords leak often, especially from startups or smaller businesses with minimal website security, so make sure your passwords are different across each service.

 


2. Keeping Devices Updated

The second area of concern is whether or not your devices have the latest security updates. We're all guilty of delaying updates for our devices because we are in the middle of something, but it becomes rather concerning when that essential security update is delayed for 2 months. Often, updates fix ways that websites, malware, and other external sources can compromise your device and possibly run unauthorized code on your devices. This can result in spying on your device, extracting photos, other files & messages, tracking your behavior, and even installing additional applications on your devices.

Please, update your devices!

 

 


3. Admin/User for Devices

Another scary area of security is something called privilege. No, not "check your privilege"... well actually, you should check it.

When you use a device that allows different types of accounts such as ADMIN, USER, GUEST, it is important to use the account of least capability. When you are doing basic computer things such as checking email, catching up on Facebook, playing games, etc., you should NOT be doing so as an ADMIN account.

On your devices such as Windows & OSX, make a separate ADMIN account for things like installing programs or making major changes to the device. Then, create a USER account for basic use. Basically, be your own administrator for device management, and be a user when not doing administrative tasks.

The reason you should do this is to prevent malware from adopting ADMIN privileges if your device is compromised. Malware with USER privileges cannot install more malware without permission from the ADMIN account, which requires a password. Malware is also stopped from modifying key files for your operating system, or any other key files that are important.

If you can stop threats by restricting their privilege, you can stop a VERY large number of issues from happening.

 


4. Use Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Two-factor authentication is a setup where a username and password are only the first step in authenticating a user. From there, a user must provide a secondary type of proof that he or she can access the account. These are the most common types of authentication methods:

  • Text Message - A service can text your phone a code, so the user must have access to that phone number (and cell service provider account). This is required to grant access
  • Code-Generating Authentication Device or App - Some devices, or applications on phones, can be used where they generate a code every set amount of time. The user must have access to the device at that particular time in order to enter the code. Some services can require the user re-inputs a code every set period of time.
  • Physical Device - Some devices need to be plugged in via USB to verify the user is allowed access. This is similar to the above, but does not show a code to be entered. Instead, it relies on the device being plugged in.
  • Secondary "password" - Some services, such as banking, will ask you to answer questions such as the color of your first car, or the town you were born in. This is a second method to make sure you are you, and is especially valuable in stopping people in foreign countries from compromising your account, as a culture barrier, combined with direct information on the user, can be difficult to obtain.

 


5. Make & Maintain Backups

Sometimes we cannot stop issues from happening. Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts your files and charges you for the password to access said files. Most of us do not want to spend hundreds of dollars to pay the ransom for vacation photos, but sometimes we might be stuck paying for them if we NEED the files.

Instead of opening yourself to being a victim, you can instead opt to make regular backups of your files. There are many, many ways to back things up, both physically and digitally. Here are some suggestions:

Physical Storage: Flash Drives & External Hard Drives

These will store your files via a USB connection to your computer. A flash drive is effective for smaller files that do not require massive storage space, while external hard drives can hold more data than we ever could see ourselves needing.

Recommended Flash Drive: Western Digital 4TB Portable External Hard Drive

Recommended External Hard Drive: Sandisk 128GB Flash Drive

 

Cloud Storage: Google Drive & Dropbox

Companies such as Google and Dropbox offer free storage in the cloud, which is basically online via their servers. Sometimes you can even set these up to automatically back up files.

 

With either of these storage solutions (you should consider using both), you can feel safer knowing your data exists in more than one place. Regularly back up your data to make sure you have the most up to date versions of your work!

 

The 3-2-1 Rule

The 3-2-1 rule states that you should have 3 copies of all data. 2 of them can be on-site like in a desk or on the computer, and 1 should be external, either in the cloud or at another location.


6. Avoid "Free" & Third Party App/Program Sources

Free movies, apps, programs, games, music, and everything else is always tempting, especially when the paid version is costly. Sometimes we even see certain types of media accessible only on certain platforms. So we ask ourselves if we can find things for free. Many times, if something is free and too good to be true, it probably is.

Website/app developers that offer "free" services and media often will attack your device as it visits the website/app. Here are some of the things they may try to do:

  • Monitor activity on your device
  • Throw viruses and other nasty types of malware at your PC
  • Advertise via sketchy organizations to do any of the above

It is not a good idea to "get around" media that costs money. If you are not the customer, you end up being the product. It costs a lot of money to host media and re-engineer "free" things for users of the website and/or app.


7. Factory Reset Everything Periodically

I speak with confidence when I say my devices have a much lower chance of being infected with malware. Why? I reset them every 6 months (summer and winter breaks as a teacher). Doing so resets everything on the device and brings it back to the day I purchased it. My devices are fast, I have tons of storage, and I am confident that my device is relatively safe.

You should get in the habit of resetting devices every so often. Here is a list of devices to reset, and how periodically:

  • Phone & Tablets - Every Year
  • Desktop PCs & Laptops - Every 1-2 Years or Sooner
  • Router - Every 6 Months
  • Car Computer System - Every 3-4 Years