These days, every aspect of our lives is connected in some way to the internet.
Our medical records are digital, our work happens in the cloud, and we even socialize online more than ever before. For that reason, it has never been more critical for the average person to take steps to maintain strict control of their personal data.
The threats to that data are immense. So far in 2019, the Identity Theft Resource Center has cataloged at least 1,152 data breaches that exposed about 160 million records – and those are just the ones that have been publicly reported. That figure indicates that we're on track to have our worst year for data security since experts began keeping track and there are no signs that it's going to get better soon, despite businesses taking great pains to improve the ways they handle and protect the data they collect from users.
The only solution is for every individual to seize control of their digital fate and start taking some defensive measures to keep their data safe. As it turns out, there are some pretty simple ways to do that. Here are five clever, easy-to-manage ways to enhance your personal data security right now.
By far, most data breaches happen due to careless mistakes by users in securing their online accounts. Those mistakes can leave any data you store online vulnerable to attack and increase your odds of being a victim of identity theft or other kinds of cybercrime. In fact, even when you do everything right, you could still be a victim if the site itself suffers a hack and your passwords end up for sale on the dark web.
To make sure you stay safe, there are some best practices you should follow to secure your online accounts. First, check here to see if any of your online accounts are already known to be compromised. If so, change your passwords right away.
When you do, follow these guidelines:
|l never use the same password for multiple accounts|
|l never include personally identifiable information in passwords (names, birth dates, etc.)|
|l choose passwords that are hard to guess but easy for you to remember|
|l create passwords that are as long as the site you're securing will allow|
|l never share your passwords with anyone or keep them stored in plain text (on your devices or in writing)|
Whenever it's an option, make use of two-factor authentication (2FA). That makes it so that even a hacker with access to your passwords still won't be able to access your accounts. Even better, invest in a hardware security key to make your accounts totally bulletproof.
One of the best ways to protect your personal data is to use encryption to render it unreadable by anyone other than those who are authorized to see it. The first step is to enable storage encryption on your connected devices, so they will be safe even in the event they're lost or stolen. On iOS or Android-powered devices, this can be accomplished at the touch of a button. On Windows devices, the process is a little more involved, but it's still worth doing.
The next thing to do is to make sure that you use websites that operate with SSL encryption whenever possible. You'll know if a website is encrypted if its address begins with "https://" or you see a padlock icon preceding the site's name in your web browser's address bar. To help you make sure you're using the encrypted versions of websites as much as possible, you can even install a free browser plugin that will redirect you to the right place by default whenever possible.
Another way to use encryption to keep your data safe is to use VPN software, which will encrypt all of your internet traffic no matter where it's headed. Today, you can subscribe to a month of a consumer VPN service for about the cost of a cup of coffee, so it's an inexpensive security upgrade for any internet user.
There are a variety of providers that offer VPN service for multiple platforms (to cover all of your devices), and it's even easy to find a VPN for Mac computers, despite the closed nature of Apple's software ecosystem. In that way, you can wrap all of your data in a layer of encryption for added privacy and security everywhere.
In today's multi-platform and multi-device environment, manufacturers go out of their way to make connected devices as user-friendly as possible. One of the side effects of that is the fact that software updates often happen in the background, and it's easy to lose track of each device's status. Worse still, people all over (and even some big corporations) still have the nasty habit of deliberately stopping software updates because they find them inconvenient.
From a personal data security point of view, that's a terrible mistake. The vast majority of device-specific cyberattacks rely on unpatched software flaws to gain access to protected systems, so avoiding software updates is akin to inviting hackers to take advantage of you. For that reason, you should set aside time every week to check to make sure all software on all of your devices is as up-to-date as possible.
In addition, to all of you Windows 7 holdouts out there, keep in mind that support for the venerable OS will end on January 14, 2020. At that time, Microsoft will stop providing OS security updates. Make sure to plan to either upgrade or replace your Windows 7 machines by then if you want to stay safe.
One of the biggest difficulties people have when trying to protect their data online is the sheer scope of what they have to try and secure. To tackle the challenge, the first thing to do is to try and eliminate unnecessary online accounts to make yourself a smaller target for hackers. There are several methods you can use to find and delete old or unused web accounts, and you should make every effort to do so.
With your accounts pared down to a manageable level, the next thing you should do is to categorize the accounts you have left into groups. Connect your most important accounts to an email account that you don't plan to ever get rid of (so no work accounts or ISP-provided emails). Consider connecting everything else to a throwaway email account so you'll be able to dispose of the accounts (and the email itself) if any of them are ever compromised.
Last but not least, it's important to realize that in the face of constant threats to your personal data, it's possible that no defense will be adequate. That's especially true in light of the recent explosive rise in ransomware attacks around the world. They're proof that a cyber criminal can cause just as much trouble by denying you access to your own data as they can by stealing it for themselves.
For that reason, it's critical to keep up-to-date backups of all of your critical data so you can recover from such an attack. There are several ways you can go about doing this, ranging from local disk backups to cloud-connected backup services. No matter which you choose the most important thing is to make sure that your backup is running as it should and to conduct a test restore every now and then to check that your recovery procedure works correctly.
On top of that, you should be running a credible antivirus and anti-malware software to keep your PC infection-free. That will not only decrease the likelihood that you'll suffer a ransomware attack in the first place but also help alert you to a problem before it can be replicated into your backup data. An infected backup, while not always the end of the world, is a situation you should try to avoid at all costs.
If you put these five simple steps into effect, you'll be doing your utmost to keep your personal data safe and secure on your devices and online. There's no such thing as a sure thing, though, because you still have to rely on the sites and services you use to do their part to keep your data secure.
Still, the proactive steps outlined here should serve as an effective defense against the vast majority of data threats, so they're more than worth your time and effort. So put them into action today and you should be safe and secure no matter what threats may come.
For even more tips on keeping your data secure online, check out G2's cybersecurity hub with over 50 resources to help you stay safe on the internet.
Andrej is a digital marketing expert, editor at TechLoot, and a contributing writer for a variety of other technology-focused online publications. He has covered the intersection of marketing and technology for several years and is pursuing an ongoing mission to share his expertise with business leaders and marketing professionals everywhere.
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