We might think it’s only big corporations or A-listers who are in danger of getting hacked – after all who’d want hundreds of photos of our breakfast? But your phone, computer and tablets are treasure troves of useful information that hackers can either exploit in order to impersonate you digitally, or sell on to the highest bidder.
“Think of your smartphone as a very effective tracking device,” says Justin Cappos, a cybersecurity expert and associate professor of computer science at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. “When you’re downloading an app, you might well be allowing it access to your microphone, your camera, your GPS, your wireless, your Bluetooth, your fingerprint, your contacts list, your bank account … This is very, very sensitive information.”
But, before you throw your phone in the sea, here’s some simple beginners’ netiquette to protect yourself online.
Say yes to updates
Those pop-ups about restarting your system for updates might be annoying, but they’re normally patching up holes in security. “Think of update reminders as the equivalent of getting a message saying ‘hackers can break into your phone right now, can we fix it?’” says Cappos. Probably yes, then.
Think before you click
Most of us wouldn’t click on the random URLs we get sent in unknown emails, but on social media our defences are down. Does it all sound too good to be true? “Shortened URLs are especially susceptible to hackers,” says Cappos.
Become a password pro
You might have upgraded from “Password123456” across all your accounts, but many of us still use repeat passwords that aren’t nearly robust enough. “Use a password manager, which will store passwords and generate secure, random ones for you,” advises Cappos.
Get social media savvy
If you thought your riskiest move on social media was letting your boss see all those late-night cocktails on a Sunday, think again. “Identity thieves love combing social media to gather information about you, such as your email or birthday, and then using it to hack into your email,” says Cappos. “Think twice before you post personal information like names, dates and locations.” At the same time, make sure your password isn’t something people can guess from your social media posts and only connect with people you know in real life.
Do the two-step
“Using two-step verification for Facebook, Twitter, Google etc requires you to have a second trusted device like your phone in order to log on,” says Cappos. “So, even if a hacker has got your password, they’d need your mobile phone in order to get into your accounts.” Apply it to everything you sign in for – from apps to banking.
Avoid public purchasing
Most wifi hotspots don’t encrypt your data, so never enter sensitive information – such as online banking or shopping details – when you’re on a public network. “Also, bear in mind your phone doesn’t have the anti-virus software that your computer probably does,” adds Cappos.
If the site looks dodgy, is filled with pop-ups, asks for too much information or has a strange address, don’t trust it with your money, however good the deal. Check the security of the website and regularly check your statements for unusual payments.
The cloud might sound soft and cuddly, but it’s a hacker’s dream – unless you password-protect it. “Cloud storage services automatically back up your information, like photos and documents,” says Cappos. But don’t presume it’s secure – just ask any of the celebrities who had their personal photos hacked in 2014. “Have a unique password to access the cloud that you change regularly, and enable two-step verification (see above).”
“If I showed you a demo of how easy it is for someone to remotely break into your laptop and access your webcam, you’d be shocked,” says Cappos. “I would strongly encourage people … to cover their webcams with a sticker or a plaster when they’re not in use.” Hey, if it’s good enough for Mark Zuckerberg …
Have a clear out
The more software and services you’re running, the greater the risk your security could be compromised, so delete or deactivate applications and services you don’t use and regularly clear the cache and cookies on your browser. “A recent study found that around 200 apps were listening for ultrasonic tones without users’ knowledge,” says Cappos. These tones essentially act as “beacons” and enable marketers to track where you go online and what you look at. Cappos warns: “Once this data has been collected, it’s just out there.”