There are many stories in the media about identity theft and online bullying. But you can protect yourself from these threats and it doesn’t require complex technical solutions. Here are some steps to protect your online privacy:
Limit What You Share
(1) Your information cannot be stolen or misused if it’s never put online in the first place. Think carefully about what you put on your Facebook profile or blog. If you’d be uncomfortable having your information shared with others, don’t post it.
(2) Curate what you do post, however. On social networking sites, set privacy settings to their strictest settings (i.e., not “everything is public”) and share information only with groups of friends who need to know. For example, if you’re Facebook friends with your family, co-workers and neighbors, resist the urge to post a status update announcing that you’ll be out of town for three days. Your family and co-workers may benefit from knowing, but if the entire neighborhood knows you may be at elevated risk for burglary.
Use Strong Passwords
(1) The hacker collective Anonymous accessed the email account of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in early 2012. His password was “123456.” So also was the password (with “12345″) of several more of the nearly 80 high-ranking Syrian officials targeted by Anonymous.
(2) The single best way to protect your privacy online is to secure your accounts with a strong password. The best passwords contain a mix of letters, numbers and symbols. Mix the case of the letters and aim for a password of 10 or more characters long. Avoid using words found in the dictionary or terms that may easily be associated with you. Don’t use the same password for several important sites, like your social networking, shopping and online banking sites.
(3) One trick for building a good password: Pick a word or phrase you’ll remember, then make a few edits to improve its complexity as a password. For example, if you really like salted nuts, you could turn the phrase “I ate cashews” into “i8Ca$hewsz” — easy to remember but devilishly difficult to guess.
(1) Children and young adults adapt quickly to Internet culture, but their very youth also sometimes means that their internal filters aren’t well developed. In chat rooms or in public discussion forums, a child may not think twice about revealing sensitive information to strangers. The risk isn’t just that a predator may harm a child; a child may release enough information about a parent that the parent’s identity could be stolen or the family home targeted.
(2) Don’t let small children use the Internet alone. Monitor the websites that a teenager may visit, and provide frequent coaching to young adults about online privacy and safety.
Install Anti-Malware Software
(1) Viruses and related malware can infect your computer simply by your visiting an infected Web page or by clicking a bad link in an email. Once infected, your computer may slow down or serve up tons of spam popup messages. Some malware, however, can compromise your computer’s security — potentially letting intruders review your files or access your email accounts.
(2) Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system contains “Windows Defender,” a basic anti-virus/anti-malware tool. To activate it, open the Control Panel and select “Windows Defender.” In the tool’s Settings tab, you’ll see different configurable options. Make sure that Windows Defender is enabled and set for real-time scans.
(3) Windows Defender is well regarded, but it’s not considered a top-of-the-line security tool by industry experts. Select a paid solution from vendors like AVG or Norton for more robust defenses.
Beware Free Public Wi-Fi
(1) Free public Wi-Fi connections make a great bonus for customers of coffee shops, restaurants and related establishments. Unencrypted Wi-Fi — the kind that doesn’t ask you to supply a password to connect — passes the plain text of what your computer sends and receives from the Wi-Fi router. Usually, open Wi-Fi doesn’t present much of a risk, but new tools like packet sniffers and the Firefox add-on called Firesheep make it easy for the curious to read the traffic passing through the Wi-Fi connection and even hijack sessions for online banking or Gmail or Facebook.
(2) When you use public Wi-Fi, remember to set the connection to “public” when you first connect to reduce the risk that someone could access your computer directly. Don’t engage in sensitive transactions like online banking or social networking unless you have a secure browser session; secure sessions appear in your Web browser’s address bar as “https” instead of “http.”