It can feel impossible to do anything online anymore without opening yourself up to significant privacy and security threats. Even without large-scale hacking incidents or government surveillance to worry about, there are still threats like email spam, which is both annoying and potentially dangerous.
Many of us take a relaxed approach to our online activities, perhaps because the threats to our privacy may not feel real or immediate. But everything we do leaves a digital footprint. And if we’re not careful, our information can be used against us as we lose access to email accounts and bank account passwords, or become victims of identity theft.
Consider taking these steps to guard your privacy online.
Never connect to an unsecured wifi network.
It’s tempting to connect to an open wifi network as you sit in a coffee shop or a train station, but this is never a good idea. While secure networks are generally connected to a router, open wifi networks are often connected to other computers. Your personal information on your computer is at risk of being stolen or hacked the moment you connect to that open network.
The safest thing to do is disable your wifi entirely on your phone until you know you can access a secure network, or to set up a VPN.
Online shop using only secure sites.
Any reputable site will use the security protocol SSL for its online financial transactions. You’ll know that a site is using SSL when you look at the website address: it should say HTTPS at the beginning and you should also see a padlock icon. If these two things aren’t present, think twice before handing over your credit card information.
Take an honest look at your online activities.
Be wary of any and all interactions. Thousands of people fall victim to scams on Facebook or via email, because they don’t stop to question what they’re doing. If you get a desperate Facebook message from a friend asking for a money, pick up your phone and call them to verify that they’re actually in trouble.
If you get an email from who you think is a trusted source, but something still feels off, inspect it carefully. Often, scammers will buy domain names that closely resemble one you’re familiar with, so that email addresses appear legitimate. This is called phishing. Inspect the email before you click any links. Always think twice before downloading any attachment.
A large-scale hacking incident at the University of Calgary in Canada, which led to the school forking over a $20,000 ransom payment to the hackers, likely started with a phishing email. A malware attack that crippled the NHS, the UK’s national health system, likely also began when a staff member opened a suspicious attachment.
When it comes to social media, carefully consider what you share online, including your location and personal details about your life and family.
Use strong passwords.
Human errors or failings play a big role in online privacy breaches. Most of us choose passwords that we can remember, which means we choose passwords that are easy to crack. Coming up with a strong password needs to be your first priority. It should be a minimum of eight characters and include a capital letter, symbol and a number.
Don’t use the same one for every account. Avoid including obvious aspects of your life such as your spouse’s or pet’s name, or your date of birth. Never, ever use “password” as your password.
Use an encrypted mobile phone for secure email.
Common email providers such as Gmail or Outlook are notoriously insecure.
With the use of PGP encryption, BlackBerry users can send encrypted email messages that only the intended recipient can decrypt and read. Because messages between PGP BlackBerry devices are encrypted, an intercepted message is meaningless and unreadable. It’s the securest way to communicate privately.