We all have dozens of accounts, passwords, private files, and photo albums. None of which we want released to the public. But someday, a bored hacker might target you to see what sort of goodies he can find. Or a disaster happens and your laptop explodes. Whatever it may be, YOUR DATA IS NOT SAFE! AHHH! Okay, stop panicking. I have a solution! Well, 14 solutions actually. Let's get started. We have a lot of ground to cover.
Keep Strong, Updated Passwords
What was your Facebook password two years ago? Same as today? If so, we have a problem. Passwords are a volatile thing that can easily be cracked or leaked. You should update all of your passwords once a year. Yes, all of them. The more complete you are about it, the better off you'll be. I don't know how many times I have tried guessing a password from 3+ years ago. It's nearly impossible. Pikachu88? Hunter2? When you always update all your passwords, you'll never have to think back into your mental catalogues again. For advice on rock solid password creation, check out my step-by-step guide here.
Log Out of Shared Computers
This should be an obvious one by now, but it's important nonetheless. If you step away from a public computer (if those still exist), you MUST log out of everything. If someone were to pop onto your gmail account, they now have access to your entire life. That is unless you have less than 100 total emails in your inbox like myself :) If you're curious how to tackle a zero inbox, I just happened to write a handy guide about just that!
More common than "public computers" being compromised would be work computers. Even if you have your own dedicated box, it's not unlikely that someone might hop on yours to do a quick bit of work or Google something really pressing, like "lynch skittles press conference." If this happens, they might happen to see a little private chat window pop up between you and another coworker. Danger! Now your secret meth lab is a secret no more...
Think Before You Type
This tip goes along with the last one, but on a more general scale. If you type anything using any sort of computer or phone, act as if it could go public. This is an extreme case, of course, but a good practice to get in to. Want to spread rumors about the receptionist? Want to vent about your boss? Want to disclose private indiscretions? Want to schedule a drug deal? None of these things should have any paper trail. It's too easy for this sort of information to get into the wrong hands. If you must converse about such things, place that person in front of you and use your voice. Or use code names and code words if you really must type out these secrets.
Keep Your Home Address Hidden
Sure, most people don't have anything to hide and nothing to worry about. But there are some people out there with malicious intent. Maybe you wronged them in grade school. Maybe you were too popular. Maybe you didn't even realize, but you were the reason they lost their job. Who knows. Whether or not someone actually has a grudge on you, it's smart to keep your location specifics non-specific. If not for your physical safety, for the safety of your identity. Specific information like that is just one more bit of data that can be used against you in identity theft. If someone acquires your last three addresses, your favorite stuffed animal, and your mother's maiden name, it's game over. You might as well post your social security number on a billboard.
Okay, it's not that bad, but you should still keep your personal data private.
Back It Up!
No amount of cyber security can protect you from imminent hard drive failure! Or laptop theft. If you lose your computer, your data goes along with it. That's why it's so important to keep consistent, redundant copies of your data. I highly recommend compiling all of your data into an efficient folder structure then copying those files to an external hard drive and, more importantly, to Google Drive. I have recently uploaded all of my life's data (250GB) to Google Drive and have been loving it. I have access to every photo I've ever taken from any device I am logged in to. For some people, that might be a scary thought, but it's comforting to know that photos I took in 6th grade aren't deteriorating on an old CD-ROM in a drawer somewhere. If you want to organize your files and move to the cloud, check out this admittedly OCD article I wrote for just that occasion.
Install Freeware with Care
Freeware is a dangerous kind of software. On the bright side, it's free and ready for download at a moment's notice. On the down side, they often come with little surprises that you accidentally agree to during installation. If you remember Bonzi Buddy, you feel my pain. Oftentimes, these surprises are in the form of subtle changes to your internet browser. A new toolbar is added or an extension is installed. Sometimes they're easy to remove, but sometimes you'll see remnants of the program for months. The best way to fight these off is by being proactive. When installing any programs whatsoever, click "Next" and "Agree" very carefully. Make sure to at least skim what you're agreeing to. Too many times, you'll be on the last page of an installation and it will say, "Click Finish to complete the installation and install Ask.com toolbar or click Cancel to complete the installation without the Ask.com toolbar." Tricky tricky!
Your programs. Your operating system. Your smartphone. Update everything, always. Yes, sometimes a new update will have some major flaw that kills kittens for fun, but the manufacturers are always quick to hotfix anything that devastation. The reason we update is because hackers find little vulnerabilities in programs that can give them all sorts of access to your computer. After updating, however, these vulnerabilities are patched for your safety. I know many of you might say, "Nah, I like this version. It's stable and never crashes." And that's totally fine! I totally don't mind that the hackers have targets other than myself ;)
Lock Your Phone
Long ago, I didn't have a passcode on my iPhone. I figured that because I'm so responsible, nothing would ever happen to my phone. One drunken cab ride later, I changed my mind. The pants had shallow pockets, I swear. But regardless, phones do get lost, or stolen. And if there's no level of protection on your phone, anyone can have a frightening amount of access to your accounts. Thankfully most bank apps require a password or fingerprint every time they're opened. Facebook and Gmail, on the other hand, do not.
Public Networks = Public Data
It is surprisingly easy to capture packets of data sent through routers. Someone could set up a non-password-protected hotspot at a random cafe and wait for someone to connect to it. Once connected, anything that you send or receive over that connection could be compromised. You could even probably set up a hotspot on your phone and name it Starbucks-Guest and have people connecting through you. So be careful and try to use trusted networks as much as possible.
Wipe Your Computer
I'm not talking with toilet paper, I mean doing a clean installation of your entire operating system. It is a daunting and time-consuming process, but it is guaranteed to rid your box of any malicious intent. Additionally, your computer will run much smoother with a fresh start. I try to do this one or two times per year. Here is a guide for performing a clean installation of Yosemite and Windows 8.
Does that email from FedEx look a little off? Is your 'cousin' emailing you from a different email address and asking for personal information? Is someone offering you a deal that is too tempting to decline? Before you go clicking on any links or replying with your information, first take a moment and think if the email makes sense. Have you shipped anything with FedEx in the last week? Would your cousin really need this information? If you're still not sure, follow up with them and ask specific questions that only they would know. Or make them call you if it's really pressing.
Antivirals for Windows
Sorry Microsoft, but Windows is still the vulnerable one. If you're a Windows user, install some sort of antivirus to protect you from viruses and malware. AVG has always been a favorite of mine.
For anyone who is familiar with torrenting or The Pirate Bay, please only download things for testing purposes or if you already own a copy of the product. Artists and developers need to make a living too.
Alright, now that I got the disclaimer out of the way, I want to advise on only downloading things with several positive comments or ratings. Some uploaders have a sort of trusted uploader badge. Other websites have upvotes and downvotes to help clarify the safety and quality of the torrent.
More than anything, just be smart! Tread carefully and think about each decision you make online. Every post, every file, every password. No one is going to protect it for you. Now go out there and feel the warmth of your newfound security!