5 Tips for Staying Safe Online

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

5 Tips for Staying Safe Online

The Internet is an amazing accomplishment, making the sharing of enormous amounts of information and data as simple as clicking a mouse or tapping a screen. But like all human endeavors, there are criminals waiting to exploit it, people who delight in breaking trusts and using false premise to take what they can get and disappear scot-free into the night. A few simple tricks can help keep these villains at bay.

Keep your computer clean

Computer security starts, obviously enough, with the computer. Virus creators have become quite sophisticated, creating stealth programs which can sit undetected on a user’s computer for months, recording in great detail every keystroke they make and every website they visit. All they need is one slip-up on the user’s part to install one of these loggers and easily figure out how to access their personal information.

Besides the usual measure of having a good, well-established, well-reviewed antivirus software package installed, there’s more the user can do to help keep viruses at arm’s length. It’s important to be very careful about opening email attachments, even from people you know and trust. Email is not a secure medium by default. A common attack is for someone to watch raw network data as it flows through the Internet, take note of the origin and destination points, compile a list of likely connections, and then “spoof” email to make it look like Person A sent a message that their close friend Person B receives. If need be, ask the sender if they really meant to send a mysterious ZIP file to you; it may be annoying, but in the end you’ll both benefit from staying virus free.

Also, be careful about downloading software. A popular way to propagate a virus is to infect the installer for legitimate software and then place the program on the web to download freely. Even though there are many thousands of legitimate free programs out there, make sure you download only from official websites, and then only sites of those software creators you feel you can trust. Googling for a program and downloading the first file you come across may be fast, but it’s certainly not prudent.

Watch your passwords

Passwords are aggravatingly ever-present whenever computers are concerned. It’s tempting to just use the same password, or a slight variation, on every secure site you need to access.

Unfortunately, not every server on the Internet is properly secured, which makes your password only as safe as the weakest server you use it on. While you may not need to worry (so much) about your password being stolen from a hardened secure server like your bank’s website, your local big-box retailer may not be as diligent … and if you use the same password on both, you’re just waiting for big trouble to find you.

There are a number of password keeper programs which can minimize this risk without requiring you to remember dozens of unique passwords. Many of these apps can even generate random passwords for you, then keep them all locked securely away behind a master password which you only keep locally. Again, a little extra work on your part can prevent a whole bunch of headaches.

Keep your browser and OS updated

Software updates can be a pain, but new software versions will nearly always have the latest and greatest security fixes built in. This will reduce the risk of stumbling across a website which exploits a known vulnerability in your browser. Many modern browsers have the ability to automatically update themselves without prompting. We at Matcha Design always recommend that our customers keep this option turned on at all times.

The same goes for operating system updates. Some members of the Internet community dislike the idea of OS updates, under the assumption that the manufacturer is somehow scanning their file system in search of pirated software or (more outlandishly) sniffing out secret information to pass along to the authorities. What the manufacturer is really doing, however, is adding incremental improvements, fixing bugs, and generally closing up software “cracks.” Even if your browser is up to date, there may be a vulnerability lurking somewhere deep in the system which can still be accessed. The more time passes, the more well-known these cracks become.

Be wary of public Wi-Fi connections

Whether you’re on a laptop or a phone, public Wi-Fi is a popular option to save on bandwidth charges. Unfortunately, it’s also an insidiously dangerous option for the unwary user. For one thing, every device connected to a public hotspot can be seen by every other device. Be especially careful to lock down your connection to minimize the amount of information you display. Most computer operating systems have a built-in option for heightened security when you connect to a new Wi-Fi network. Always make sure it’s active in public and never assume anything you do or say online is secure.

Another unscrupulous trick is for someone to set up an open Wi-Fi router near a business, and give the network ID an official-sounding name to make it seem as though it’s affiliated with the business. Then all this person has to do is wait for people to log in so he can watch every scrap of data which flows through the network, including passwords and personal information. Be sure you know the name of a business’ Wi-Fi network before you connect. When in doubt, ask.

Don’t forget your smartphone!

The smartphone has become an integral part of most people’s Internet connections, and has its own set of pitfalls.

A smartphone is a repository of personal information which many apps will tap into to enhance the user’s experience. Most app stores will tell the user exactly what sort of information an app requires. It makes sense for Flickr, for example, to access your photos, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to post them online. But there may not be a reason for a freeware Flappy Birds clone to have the same privileges. Be sure that an app isn’t asking for more information than you’re willing to give.

A recent phenomenon is app hijacking. This comes about when a programmer, usually a single person or small company, creates a popular app which enjoys a surge of popularity and a large number of installs. A second company swoops in and offers to buy the app outright for a healthy sum. This second company “updates” the app, then pushes it out to its unsuspecting fans. Suddenly many thousands of users are giving up information they never intended. Be wary if an app suddenly asks for a new set of permissions. If it’s more than you think it should need, and you can live without it, consider deleting the app and saving yourself some potential trouble later.

Beyond apps, an equally big concern is physical security. Smartphones are easy to pick up and carry off. It’s always a good idea to have a password on your phone or tablet, and have it auto-lock after a minute or two of inactivity. This will prevent interested parties from picking up your phone and casually nosing through your personal information.

Epilogue

With a little vigilance, you’ll be protected from the worst the Internet has to offer, while still being able to enjoy the best of it. As anyone who has ever had to scrub a computer free of viruses will relate, all it takes to keep things running is an ounce of prevention.

About Matcha Design

Matcha Design is a full-service creative B2B agency with decades of experience executing its client’s visions. The award-winning company specializes in web design, logo design, branding, marketing campaign, print, UX/UI, video production, commercial photography, advertising, and more. Matcha Design upholds the highest personal standards for excellence and can see things from a unique perspective due to its multicultural background.  The company consistently delivers custom, high-quality, innovative solutions to its clients using technical savvy and endless creativity. For more information, visit MatchaDesign.com.

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