Modern life is digital, and that means modern crime is too. Hackers steal login details for online-shopping sites, or scramble photos then demand money to restore them, or co-opt computers into “bot-nets”, hordes of compromised machines that can be used to blast websites with traffic, forcing them offline. It all sounds scary and technical. But while perfect security is impossible, a few simple steps can make you much safer online.
First off, however irritating the reminders are, always install updates, especially for operating systems and web browsers. Second, make backups of anything you can’t afford to lose. Many smartphone apps will do this automatically, storing files remotely on computers controlled by the company that makes the app. For extra peace-of-mind, consider buying a cheap USB hard drive and regularly copying valuable files onto it (leave it unplugged in a drawer when not in use). Such backup drives have saved several friends whose machines were infected by ransomware.
Second, cultivate a healthy sense of paranoia. Think twice about opening email attachments, especially if you are not expecting them. Be wary of clicking on links in unsolicited emails, which may lead to dummy sites designed to steal usernames or passwords. (Such “phishing” attacks are one way that hackers managed to get inside the Democrats’ computers in the American presidential election in 2016.)
Beyond that, how secure you want to be depends on how much hassle you are prepared to put up with, for there is often a trade-off between ease-of-use and security. Even if, like most people, you generally re-use passwords on several different sites, try to guard your main email account with a unique one. If hackers get access to that, they can often get access to other websites you use via those sites’ password-recovery features, which will send a new password to your (now compromised) email account.
Even better, if your email provider offers it (and these days, most do) is “two-factor authentication”. This combines an ordinary password with a smartphone app, or a physical gizmo, that generates short numerical codes that change every few seconds. To log in, you need both your password and one of those ever-changing codes. If, for instance, a thief gets a hold of your password, it is useless without also having access to your phone to receive the authorisation code.
Take similar care with sites that allow you to spend money. Online banking is an obvious worry, but consider online shops, too. Many automatically store your credit-card details. Anyone armed with your username and password could therefore spend cash without the need to get hold of your credit card details as well. Similarly, be wary of browsers that store personal details to let you fill in forms quickly. If your laptop is stolen the thief can very easily access sites and banking information.
As much as it pains me to say it (as someone whose salary is paid partly through online advertising) an ad-blocker is a good idea, too. Malicious advertisements can subvert machines without their users being aware of it, and occasionally make their way onto even the most respectable websites: the New York Times and the BBC have both been victims of this. Try uBlock Origin or AdBlock Plus. Google is planning to integrate an ad-blocker with its Chrome browsers starting in 2018.
Smartphones, which can contain plenty of very personal data, should be another priority. Generally speaking Apple phones are more secure than Android ones, and receive updates for longer. (Although for the supremely paranoid, an American firm called SilentCircle makes some of the most secure phones on the planet, and those are based on Android). Ordinary mortals should lock their phones with a PIN number (preferably six digits or more). Fingerprint or iris scanners offer a convenient alternative on newer phones. Whether on Android or Apple, encrypting your phone offers an extra layer of security.
As with cars, or houses, or anything else, none of these methods is 100% effective. But for most people, they do not have to be. As in the real world, cyber-crooks prefer the easy targets. If you are the boss of a multinational corporation, a senior diplomat, or an A-list celebrity – the kind of person with reasons to worry about truly skilled and committed hackers, in other words – then you might want to consider more drastic methods. But then, you probably have people who can tell you exactly what you need to do.