Take only photos and leave only footprints. It’s been the advice to travellers for decades. But as we navigate the digital landscape, both hold the potential to expose us to risk.
From paying bills to playing games, shopping to socialising, we’re online more than ever before. And this activity can leave a trail leading to our location, our money, our families and our identities.
But a few simple steps can help protect you – and your information – from unwelcome eyes.
Safety begins at home
Start with a strong foundation for your home internet. That means securing your wireless network – if you’re not using a password, there’s nothing to stop somebody accessing data you send or receive. That’s a sobering thought but it’s very easily preventable. A wifi password can also stop opportunists from sharing your internet connection and gobbling up your download limit.
Locking the front door isn’t much help if the back door is left wide open. It’s worth checking the settings on your modem router to make sure that data encryption is turned on, and that you’re not using the default password the device had when you got it.
We all know that it’s important to use antivirus software for our PC, but when it comes to keeping our systems up to date, many of us are slower to act. The recent highly publicised ‘WannaCry’ ransomware attack that affected businesses, governments and individuals worldwide, was largely preventable simply by installing a Microsoft Windows security patch.
Keep it under lock and key
You wouldn’t leave your PIN for your bank account lying on your desk, but are your online password choices compromising your safety?
Using a password that’s easy for other people to guess makes it easy for them to gain unauthorised access to your accounts. And when you use that same password across multiple accounts, the risk of being compromised increases. Add to that our reluctance to change passwords regularly, and it’s just asking for trouble.
Keeping track of the number of online accounts we end up with can be tricky, and with a different password for each account it becomes mind-boggling. This is where password manager tools can make a huge difference.
Password managers are online vaults or stand-alone software that keep all your login details and passwords safe from others, while putting them in easy reach for you. No more having to remember or continually reset your passwords – you just need a single, strong ‘master password’ to access the lot.
It’s worth completing the online security check included in your password manager. This will help you update weak or duplicated passwords with more effective, randomly generated ones, and will also highlight any sites that may have been compromised.
Double the security
Many sites and applications offer two-factor authentication, which provides another layer of protection to users. This usually involves entering a unique code as well as your password when logging in. The code can be suppliedthrough a mobile app, a security token, or by text message.
While this process does take a little longer, a few seconds are a relatively small price to pay when it comes to keeping personal photos, documents and credit card details safe.
It’s available across social media, email, Apple and Google accounts, document management platforms such as Dropbox, online payment and shopping sites including PayPal, and of course for password managers.
The latest smartphones and tablets also support verification using a fingerprint scanner. This is part of a growing trend to use biometric data for security, making it more effective as well as quicker and easier.
Don’t shout it from the rooftops
Social media is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family and connect with others about our shared interests in everything from football to philosophy. Oversharing can cause more than embarrassment though, if it allows our personal information to fall into the wrong hands.
Take a look at your privacy settings to make sure that you’re only sharing with your nearest and dearest and not the whole world wide web.
That includes avoiding publicly tagging your location, which can enable strangers to see exactly where you are, or showing that your home is currently unoccupied. Likewise, sharing details of fancy new purchases can put you at risk of theft if shared beyond your friends and family.
How much to share online can vary widely from person to person. As a minimum though, steer clear of posting your home address, personal phone number or your full date and place of birth. All of those details can be used to open the door to more information about you and, in the worst case, identity fraud. Even a photo of your airline boarding pass can be used to unlock your loyalty points and credit card details.
A moving target
Our love of smartphones means we can stay connected almost everywhere. Some things are better done in private, though – if you’re doing your banking on the wifi network at your local cafe, you might as well be sharing your account details at the top of your voice.
To stay safer, turn off wifi and bluetooth when you’re out and about, and be careful of the information you enter in public places.
Watch out for shared computers, too – avoid logging into your personal accounts wherever possible, and be careful of using portable USB drives that can pick up viruses or malware. Losing a phone can be a greater cost and a bigger inconvenience than losing a purse or wallet. There are apps that can help locate it, lock it, or wipe its data from afar: Apple has Find My iPhone, while Find My Device is available for Android devices linked to a Google account.
Wolves in sheep’s clothing
Online scams often cloak themselves in the familiarity of brands, businesses, and even government institutions we know and trust. Some of these can look very professional and be highly convincing.
But genuine correspondence normally won’t request that you update your personal details, claim that you’ve won a competition you’ve never heard about, or threaten that you’ve failed to lodge a tax return. Never fall for entering confidential information like your street address, bank details or tax file number on a site you’ve visited directly from an email or a social media link.
Technology can significantly boost your digital security, but for the best risk reduction you also need to think before you click.