How to Protect Yourself from Viruses, Hackers, and Thieves.
People often think of computer security as something technical and complicated. And when you get into the nitty-gritty, it can be—but the most important stuff is actually very simple. Here are the basic, important things you should do to make yourself safer online.
Enable Automatic Updates
All the software we use every day is likely riddled with security issues. These security issues are constantly being found—whether we’re talking about Windows, Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, the Adobe Flash plugin, Adobe’s PDF Reader, Microsoft Office—the list goes on and on.
These days, a lot of operating systems and programs come with automatic updates to close these security holes. No longer do you need to click a button or download a file to update your software; it’ll update itself in the background without any input from you.
Some people like to turn this off for one reason or another. Maybe you don’t like that Windows restarts after installing an update, or maybe you just don’t like change. But from a security perspective, you should always leave automatic updates on.
Microsoft provides updates for Windows and associated Microsoft products (Defender, Office) on the second Tuesday of each month. Apple doesn’t have a regimented schedule, but they also regularly provide updates. These updates not only fix bugs, but they patch security holes. So the only way to protect yourself against the latest known vulnerabilities is by updating. Malicious attackers are always looking for unpatched systems they can attack, and automatic updates keeps you off the list of low hanging fruit.
Use Antivirus and Anti-Malware
It seems like every couple of years an article will come out saying one antivirus is the absolute best. Three more will follow saying three others outperformed the first. On top of these, some security expert will write an article saying antivirus is no longer relevant and you’re dumb if you use it.
Let’s set the record straight: you should be running antivirus, even if you are browsing carefully on the internet. Which one? It’s up to you—though when it comes to free, simple, and good, there’s nothing wrong with using windows Defender. It’s built in to Windows, it updates automatically with the Windows Update utility, it has no discernible impact on performance, and it’s free. To be effective, an antivirus application need to integrate with the operating system on a very deep level. Who better to know the internals of Windows than the people who built it? Plus, it won’t try to sell you other products or inject other features you don’t need, like some antivirus programs do.
If you spend time on the shadier corners of the internet, you may want something a bit stronger, like Avira or Kaspersky, but for most home users, Windows Defender should be fine.
However, in addition to antivirus, we also recommend using Malwarebytes alongside your antivirus. Malwarebytes can provide extra protection against malicious software that traditional antivirus products may not identify. Malicious programs like browser re-directors and advertisement injectors behave exactly like some known legitimate network filters. They’re not technically viruses, but you definitely don’t want them. Anti-malware applications can help you with those.
Craft Better Passwords, and Automate Them
You probably know passwords are important, but you probably don’t know how important—and how terrible some passwords are.
Here’s the thing: we’re no longer in the olden days of the internet, where you can just use the same password everywhere and call it a day. Services get hacked all the time, and if you’re using the same password everywhere, you’ve given someone access to all of your accounts when one service leaks information. You need to use long passwords and you need to use different ones on every site and service.
To do this, I recommend everyone to use a password manager like LastPass. It’ll automatically generate passwords for you, save them securely in one central place, and even automatically insert them for you as you browse.
You should also have a password on your computer and a passcode on your phone, too. I know, I know, it’s inconvenient. But while it may take a few seconds longer than just hitting one button, it’s an easy and important way to keep your information secure. Having a password on your computer and phone will stop random people from just picking up and using your device.
Think of all the information on your cell phone. Now think of all the websites you’re logged into on your computer. Would you want a stranger having all that access? Do you know how easy it is to lose your phone or laptop? You need to have a password on your computer and phone. No exceptions.
But that’s not all. A good password is like a really good lock on the door, but locks can be picked. Adding encryption turns that door into a bunker. If you encrypt your computer or phone, you prevent thieves from getting to your data by other more advanced means. We recommend using BitLocker in Windows if you have Windows Pro or Enterprise, or veraCrypt. if you have Windows Home. Mac users should turn on fileVault. If you’re running Windows Home, something like Veracrypt is a good option for you. iPhones and Android phones are usually encrypted by default these days.
Never Leave Your Phone or Computer Unattended.
If your device gets stolen, the best case scenario is you losing your expensive device. But if you leave something unattended and you haven’t followed all of the above advice, the worst case scenario is that someone has your expensive gadget and all of your personal information. All it takes is a kid with slightly-more-than-basic computer knowledge to get at all your data, and if they have your computer in their hands, it’s a lot easier (if you don’t use encryption—see above).
Be Careful About Programs You Download and Run
This tip may also seem obvious—you hear it all the time, and probably think you follow it. But so much of the malware Windows users encounter seems to be as a result of accidentally downloading and installing bad software.
So always be careful about the programs you download and run. Only download and run software that’s widely known and trustworthy, or recommended by trustworthy sites. Make sure you always get the software from its official website—if you want to download VLC, download it from VLC’s official website. Don’t click a “Download VLC” banner on another website and download it from someone else that may bundle malware or adware along with it.
Lastly, and this should go without saying, but stop pirating software. When you acquire pirated or cracked software from peer-to-peer networks or shady websites, you’re taking a big risk. By running an .exe file from such locations, you’re trusting the distributor to not do anything harmful. Worse yet, the cracks you may need to run to make such software work properly are made by software-cracking groups. You can’t know if they’ve included malware or not.
Don’t Trust Your Popup Notifications
Similarly, never download or install something you didn’t go looking for. If a website tells you Flash is out of date, Chrome needs to be updated, or a plugin needs to be added, pump your brakes. This is a common trick to get you to install something for an attacker. If you think the pop-up might be legitimate, you still don’t want to click on it.